FDA Considers Letting Gay Men Donate Blood, Decides To Just Leave It Alone

Since 1983, gay men have been barred by the Food and Drug Administration from donating blood. The provision stemmed from the swelling AIDS epidemic of the early '80s, not long after researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered the virus was being transmitted through blood transfusions. Now that AIDS is no longer an epidemic in the United States, and HIV tests have improved dramatically, an FDA panel recently met to discuss whether this 32-year-old ban should still be upheld. Surprisingly, the FDA panel didn't revoke the ban on gay blood donors, leaving last week's meeting without casting a vote.

The 17-member Blood Products Advisory Panel is composed of health experts who regularly advise the FDA. According to The Hill, many of these experts remain wary about lifting the ban on gay blood donors, saying it seemed much more like policy-driven action, rather than motivated by health safety. "There’s too many questions in science that aren’t answerable," committee member Corey Dubin told The Hill.

Although the panel did not come to vote last week, an unnamed source told The Hill that the vote would have likely been a "no." The panel previously voted "no" on lifting the ban in 2010.

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The FDA panel's reluctance to get rid of the ban contradicts the Department of Health and Human Services' recommendation. Mother Jones reported that in November, experts advising the Health Department overwhelmingly voted to not necessarily eliminate the ban, but make it less discriminatory. The experts reportedly approved a hypothetical new rule that would allow gay men to donate blood if they did not have sex with another man in the last year. It's not a perfect rule, but it's certainly a start.

Why does the FDA still uphold the band on gay male blood donors? According to the agency, it's not just about HIV and AIDS, but also because gay men, as a group, are "at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion."

However, the FDA still seems to consider HIV and AIDS as the greatest public safety risk, using recent data to justify its position. The agency states on its website:

Between 2008 and 2010, the estimated overall incidence of HIV was stable in the U.S. However the incidence in MSM increased 12%, while it decreased in other populations. The largest increase was a 22% increase in MSM aged 13 to 24 years. Since younger individuals are more likely to donate blood, the implications of this increase in incidence need to be further evaluated.

The Blood Products Advisory Panel also stated that it needed to see more research before it could consider lifting the ban, or modifying the rules. But many LGBT activists claim the research is already out there. "There is evidence that supports moving to a one-year deferral, at the minimum," Ryan James Yezak, founder of the National Gay Blood Drive, told Mother Jones.

Yezak called the Health Department's vote in November a "big success," yet it's obvious federal health agencies aren't there yet. "We must continue to increase pressure on HHS & FDA to change the policy until discrimination based on sexual orientation is eliminated from the blood donation process altogether," Yezak said in a statement.

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