Blood Donations by Gay Men Gain Support in U.S. Panel Vote

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A U.S. advisory panel recommended for the first time that the 31-year ban preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood should be partially ended, placing the nation’s policy in line with other countries.

Men who had sex with men anytime since 1977 are barred from giving blood in the U.S., a policy that dates back to 1983 because of concern that the AIDS virus could be transmitted through blood transfusions. Groups like the American Red Cross say that risk is infinitesimal in many cases, not enough to justify a full ban that prevents much-needed donations.

Doctors and blood-donation advocates who advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services voted 16-2 today to suggest that men who have had sex with men should be able to give blood after being abstinent for one year. Their recommendation will be considered by a group of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration in a Dec. 2 meeting. While the FDA doesn’t have to follow either panel’s advice, their recommendations are considered influential.

“The system, in my mind, has been very successful, in part, I believe, because the public has trust in the system and the decisions we make,” said Jay Menitove, chairman of the advisory group that met today. “To maintain that trust and compliance on the part of the public, it is time to modernize.”

One-Year Deferral?

The U.K., Australia and Canada have already shifted to a policy that defers men who have had sex with other men from giving blood until a year or five years after their last same-sex encounter.

“I think blood collection organizations have all come out in favor of a one-year change,” said Debra Kessler, director of special donor services at the New York Blood Center, one of the largest blood collection and distribution organizations in the U.S.

HHS advisers voted 9-6 in 2010 to keep the full ban in place, though they found it suboptimal. The panel recommended research that could help support a change.

Today, they concluded that new data showed blood safety can be maintained under a revised policy.

“The meeting provided valuable information and perspectives that will help inform the FDA’s deliberations,” Jennifer Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an e-mail. “The FDA’s primary concern as we continue to review our blood donation policies will be assuring the continued safety of blood and blood products for the patients who receive these products.”

Risk Assessment

The risk of getting HIV from a blood transfusion is about 1 per 2 million units of blood transfused, according to the FDA’s website. If the ban was completely eliminated, 360,600 men would probably donate 615,300 additional pints of blood a year, which could be used to help 1.8 million people, according to a study in September from the University of California at Los Angeles.

While every unit of donated blood is tested for the virus, there is an 11-day window in which current tests can’t detect HIV in people who just contracted it, Kessler said in an interview before today’s panel meeting. A one-year deferral would allow more than enough time for the virus to be strong enough to be detected.

“This discussion needs to be about how donor deferral perpetuates the stigma of men who have sex with men having HIV,” said Jason Cianciotto, director of public policy at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization based in New York. “It’s a federal government policy that is no longer scientifically necessary because of advancements in testing.”

Donor Limitations

Under the current policy, Cianciotto and his husband can’t give blood though they’ve been monogamous for 11 years, he said in an interview before the panel’s meeting.

“We’re certainly moving toward a change, and that’s also a trend that’s also happening globally,” he said. He favors a policy that’s based on risk assessment regardless of sexual orientation instead of a deferral for one group.

The American Red Cross supports a one-year deferral. The Washington-based aid organization issued a statement in 2010 that supported lifting the ban. America’s Blood Centers, a Washington-based network of 600 blood centers in the U.S. and Canada, and AABB, a standards-setting group based in Bethesda, Maryland, signed on to the statement as well. The statement is still current, the Red Cross confirmed in an e-mail.

The change would conform with policies for similar high-risk sexual behavior, the Red Cross said in the statement. Unlike men who have had sex with men, other people who have had sexual contact with someone with HIV or viral hepatitis can now give blood after waiting a year.

The UCLA study estimated 185,800 additional men would donate 317,000 pints of blood a year if there were a one-year deferral instead of a complete end to the ban. The study was done by the Williams Institute, a research center at UCLA’s School of Law that examines sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.

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