A policy that bars gay men from donating blood for life is “suboptimal,” advisers to the Health and Human Services Department said on Tuesday, and needs another look.
HHS asked a committee of experts on blood and tissue donations to reexamine the policy and see if there is a way to let at least some gays donate blood.
“If the data indicate that a change is possible while protecting the blood supply, we will consider a change to the policy,” HHS said in a statement.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an HHS agency, has banned blood donation by any man who has had homosexual sex because of the risk of the AIDS virus. Soon after the AIDS pandemic began in the 1980s, people such as hemophiliacs who received frequent blood transfusions or blood products began to become infected with the deadly and incurable virus.
Men who have sex with other men, including gay and bisexual men, have an HIV infection rate 60 times higher than that of the general population, the FDA says. They have an infection rate 800 times higher than first-time blood donors and 8,000 times higher than the rate of repeat blood donors. Tests cannot pick up a new HIV infection in the blood with 100 percent accuracy; because blood is often pooled, many people may be at risk from a single infected donor.
But the Red Cross, always struggling with blood shortages, and other groups such as gay-rights organizations oppose the blanket policy. They say that there are other ways to screen out donors at high risk of HIV infection. Sen. John Kerry, D–Mass., has also been pushing for a change in policy.
“We’ve been working on this a long time in a serious way, and I’m glad Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius responded with concrete steps to finally remove this policy from the books,” Kerry said in a statement. “HHS is doing their due diligence, and we plan to stay focused on the endgame – a safe blood supply and an end to this discriminatory ban.”
“This announcement by HHS means we’re moving in the direction of finally ending this antiquated and discriminatory policy,” agreed Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. “Senator Kerry and I will continue to push for a behavior-based screening process both in the name of fairness and a safer blood supply.”
Some of the questions the Blood, Organ, and Tissue Safety Working Group will ask: What motivates a man who has had sex with other men to donate blood? Can men understand what puts them at high risk of HIV infection? Will donors answer honestly?
“It is anticipated that the described studies will yield data for reevaluation of the current deferral policy and potentially establish safety of blood collection from a subset of men who have sex with men or other currently deferred donors (e.g. men with a history of abstinence from MSM behavior for a defined time period),” HHS said.
Other people with potential but unknown exposures to infectious diseases are banned from giving blood in the United States, such as people who lived in Britain in the 1980s, when bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known mad-cow disease, was sweeping dairy herds.