The federal government may soon ease 31-year-old restrictions on blood donations from men who have had sex with other men, marking a big change in outdated federal policy.
The Food and Drug Administration met Tuesday to consider lifting a ban that dates back to 1983 amid fears — and little understanding — of the AIDS virus. An HHS advisory committee last month recommended that the agency lift the restriction, but only for men who hadn't had sex with other men for at least a year.
The scientific and medical communities have increasingly rejected the ban currently in place in the United States. The American Medical Association, the nation's largest physician organization, voted last year to oppose the ban, calling it discriminatory and not based on sound science. Instead, the AMA urged federal policymakers to take a more personal approach assessing each individual's level of risk.
The approach recommended by an HHS advisory committee last month falls short of that standard. And it still falls short of what a number of other countries have done to allow blood donations from gay and bisexual men.
Countries, such as Italy and Spain, use an individual risk assessment for all would-be donors, regardless of sexual orientation. Italy's blood donation policy, which has been in place since 2001, screens everyone for risk factors, like whether they've participated in prostitution, injected drugs or had multiple sex partners with unknown sexual behavior. The policy hasn't resulted in a significant increase in HIV-positive gay and bisexual male blood donors, according to a study released last year.
Mexico instituted a similar screening policy about two years ago. Russia in 2008 lifted its ban on donations from men who have sex with men, but government officials there last year suggested they could reinstate the ban after passing anti-gay laws.
Some are seeing the HHS advisory committee's one-year deferral recommendation as an easier transition from the current ban, which prevents men from donating blood if they've had sex with any man at least once 1977. Jay Menitove, a doctor who chaired the advisory committee recommending the one-year deferral policy, said it "can be looked at as a starting point."
"The sense was if we made a change, the incremental risk to the safety of the blood supply would be very, very low," Menitove told the Washington Post last week.
The science is much different today. Testing for donated blood is considered highly accurate and safe, though tests may not be able to detect HIV in someone newly infected with the virus — and that's been a concern raised by those opposing total elimination of the ban.
Australia made the switch to a similar one-year deferral policy almost 15 years ago, and there hasn't been any evidence that it resulted in a significant increase in the risk of HIV transmission, according to a 2010 study. Australia, Hungary and Japan all have one-year deferral policies, while South Africa's is six months for anyone who's had sex with a new partner.
Eliminating the ban on donations from gay and bisexual men would likely mean 360,600 new blood donors, while the one-year deferral policy would mean 185,800 likely new donors, according to an analysis from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. That wouldn't mean a major increase for the nation's blood supply — but it would mean the end of a discriminatory policy.