In a surprise move, the Food and Drug Administration announced today that the agency plans to lift its lifetime ban on the donation of blood and product products by men who have sex with other men. The proposed change? To replace the lifetime ban with a mandatory one year deferral period after engaging in homosexual activity.
The original policy was put in place in 1983 at the height of the AIDS crisis. The policy was put in place in order to protect the nation’s blood banks from HIV-infected blood. At the time, no reliable and practical test for detecting HIV in the blood existed, and since gay men were among those most likely to be infected, the policy made some practical sense. With tests for HIV becoming standard, group after group has called on the FDA to lift the ban, including a statement from the American Medical Association.
The FDA maintains that the new policy, which will be drafted in early 2015 and revised following a public comment period, reflects an internal study concluding that gay men should only be allowed to donate after one year of abstinence. The agency claims that no scientific evidence supports anything less than a one-year deferral. The change in policy puts the United States in line with other countries like Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
For their part, gay rights groups approve of the policy change as a step in the right direction but feel that it doesn’t go far enough, stating that a one year deferral is essentially a de facto lifetime ban. They claim there is no scientific evidence supporting a one year ban which they feel is neither reasonable nor medically necessary given the accuracy of HIV testing.
The FDA states that roughly half of those who would be turned away by the current policy would be eligible to donate under the new guidelines. An independent study from UCLA found similar results.
In November, the FDA convened a two-day meeting on the issue to consider reform proposals. An advisory group for the Department of Health and Human Services recommended replacing the lifetime ban with a 12-month period after same-sex conduct during which men could not donate blood.
A similar estimate came from the Williams Institute at UCLA, where researchers released a study on the topic in September. The study estimated that a one-year ban would lead to 185,800 additional men donating blood annually, and a complete end to all bans on gay men donating blood would lead to 360,600 new donors.