As 2014 came to a close, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the 31-year-old ban barring homosexual men from donating blood should be lifted. To avoid introducing HIV-positive blood into the nation’s supply, the FDA recommendation includes a deferral period of one year for all men who have had sex with other men.
Playing Devil’s Advocate: The FDA
Enacted at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the original ban was put in place when the virus was not yet understood. Although a lot has changed since then, the FDA still depends on a wide margin of error for all blood donations, claiming that the policy change is consistent with existing limitations placed on other individuals.
For example, the current policy indicates that a one-year deferral period is necessary for people who are at risk from exposure to malaria or from engaging in sex with prostitutes or intravenous drug users, according to The New York Times.
The medical reason for not lifting the ban entirely is the “window period” between infection and a positive test result. But thanks to the quickness and accuracy of modern HIV-testing, some scientists argue that it is unlikely for infected blood to be introduced into the system. The FDA, guided by an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, disagrees.
“At this time we simply do not have the scientific evidence to show that you can go to a shorter period,” said Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
Playing Devil’s Advocate: LGBT Activists
While it is the FDA’s responsibility to be cautious, rights groups believe that the ban is unsupported by scientific claims, and that it continues to play on outdated stereotypes. Lambda Legal calls for a shorter deferral period of two months or less, claiming “within 45 days of exposure, currently required blood donation testing detects all known serious blood-borne pathogens, including HIV,” according to an article from The Wall Street Journal.
Activists believe that these regulations hold gay men to a different standard, asserting that many men who have sex with other men are in monogamous relationships and consistently use protection during sexual encounters. According to the Huffington Post, the American Medical Association supports conducting individual risk assessments, which focus on behavior instead of sexual orientation.
“The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law at the University of California, Los Angeles said in September in a study that eliminating the ban would bring in 615,300 pints of blood annually. Instituting a one-year deferral period would bring in 317,000 pints, the study found,” according to Reuters.
While some are satisfied with taking incremental steps, others claim that if the ban were removed entirely, the expected supply could potentially double. Although the nation’s reserve is reported to be relatively stable, the American Red Cross asserts that there is always a need for more blood.
The indicated policy change will increase the supply by hundreds of thousands of pints per year, but it will not go into effect right away. The FDA is expected to publish a draft guidance that will be followed by a comment period in early 2015, which will decide whether or not the policy change will become final.
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