FRIDAY, June 11 (HealthDay News) -- Experts at the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services are midway through two days
of hearings on whether a decades-old ban on gay men donating blood
should stand or be lifted.
The current policy -- put into effect in 1985 during the early
days of the AIDS crisis -- prevents any man who since 1977 has had
sex with another man from donating blood.
In hearings that began Thursday, the Health and Human Services'
Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability is considering
calls for a revision of the policy in light of scientific
innovations made over the last 25 years. Those changes have led to
marked improvements in blood screening and HIV detection, experts
Current technology, for example, allows for detection of HIV in
the blood in as little as two weeks following infection.
"When the policy was first instigated in the 1980s there was good reason for it, based on the testing technologies we had at the time," said Chris Collins, vice president and director of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR). "But since then, testing technology has greatly advanced in its ability to test what's in the blood. And yet our policy hasn't."
Many other groups agree with that view. In 2008, the American
Medical Association called for ending the lifetime ban for gay men
in favor of a policy that would accept blood donations from men who
have sex with men -- so long as five years have elapsed since their
last sexual encounter.
And in a policy statement issued Thursday by the American Red
Cross, the organization said it believes that "the current lifetime
deferral for men who have had sex with other men is unwarranted and
donor deferral criteria should be modified and made comparable with
criteria for other groups at increased risk for sexual transmission
of transfusion-transmitted infections."
The Red Cross reiterated its position outlined in 2006, in a
statement issued jointly with the American Association of Blood
Banks and America's Blood Centers. That statement said that men who
have sex with men should be allowed to donate, as long as 12 months
have elapsed since their last sexual contact.
Various advocacy groups have echoed those sentiments. New York
City-based Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), along with the Human
Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, amFAR,
the Hemophilia Federation of America, and the National Hemophilia
Foundation issued a joint statement earlier this week pushing for a
repeal of the ban.
They urged Health and Human Services to "recommend any
scientific research that is necessary to allow for the thoughtful
consideration of alternative policies regarding donor
U.S. Food and Drug Administration experts have estimated that
the rate of HIV infection among likely gay blood donors would be 15
times higher than that of the general public.
However, experts say the science of detecting HIV in donated
blood has grown considerably over the past few decades. And the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found no
evidence of any HIV transmission related to blood transfusions
between 2002 and 2007.
Widening donations to include gay men would greatly help the
blood supply. As reported by
MSNBC, one recent study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that replacing the ban with a one-year deferral period would lead to an increase of nearly 90,000 pints of donated blood each year.
John Indence, vice president of marketing and communications at
the National Hemophilia Foundation, said his group wants "the
science to dictate the choice. We don't want it to be an emotional
Dr. Norbert Gilmore, a professor of medicine at McGill
University and an AIDS clinician in Montreal, agreed that the
current policy makes little sense, but maintaining the public's
faith in the safety of the blood supply is paramount.
"Trust is the word," he said. "The system is built on trust and runs on trust. Every donor who comes in has to tell the truth about his sexual history. And everyone who gets a donation has to believe that the blood is safe."
Even if tainted blood did get donated, it would most likely
never make it through screening, he added.
"With the technology we have, the risks are so small that keeping this ban in place is like permanently grounding the entire aviation system because we're afraid that eventually we might have a single crash," he said.
Any decision taken by Health and Human Services would ultimately
have to be approved by the FDA, which has failed to change the
current policy after two reviews undertaken over the past
There's more on the safety of donated blood at the
American Red Cross.