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Despite urging from the American Medical Association, the Department of State Health Services, the American Red Cross, and numerous other organizations, the Federal Drug Administration’s Blood Advisory Panel chose not to make any decision on a recommendation to change policies prohibiting blood donation from any man who has ever had sexual contact with another man.
The panel met last week to discuss the issue after DSHS’s blood experts voted 16-2 that a restriction donating until one year after having same-sex contact was better policy than the lifetime ban. But the FDA’s panel experts weren’t convinced.
“If I look at the science I would be very wary of a one-year deferral,” said Dr. Susan Leitman. “It sounds to me like we’re talking about policy and civil rights rather than our primary duty, which is transfusion safety.”
Other groups prohibited from donating blood include sex workers and intravenous drug users. Trans women who have had sex with cis men face the same restrictions as gay men.
The panel did not take a vote for or against recommendation, which makes it likely the FDA will not take any action — though they can do so with or without the recommendation. The national conversation about the lifetime ban began in earnest in 2006, when the American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers said the ban was “medically and scientifically unwarranted,” according to the Associated Press.
It’s unclear what science the FDA panel is looking at that makes its conclusions so vastly different from basically every other group with an interest in the matter. Mark Joseph Stern at Slate has one theory:
“Their stated opposition to gay blood donation is a fear that HIV-positive men will donate. But every blood donation is tested for HIV, and the virus can now be detected within weeks of infection. If gay men were celibate for a year before their donation, how could they possibly carry an increased risk for HIV? If they were already HIV-negative prior to a year of celibacy, how could they even have HIV at all?
Parse this chain of reasoning, and the Blood Products Advisory Panel’s true fear is obvious: It is afraid gay men will lie.”
Stern also notes that people who have sex with an HIV-positive opposite sex partner only face a one-year deferral. To make this as clear as possible: Straight people who have sex with an opposite sex partner who definitely has HIV only have to wait a year to give blood. Gay and bi men who have sex with a man at any point in their lives, even if their partner definitely didn’t have HIV, can never donate. It is true that men who have sex with men account for more than 60 percent of new infections each year, but the ability to prevent transmission and the ability to screen blood for HIV are both monumentally improved since the FDA implemented the policy in 1983.
Either a year is a long enough period to determine whether someone who has potentially been exposed to HIV contracted the disease or it isn’t. It seems like the FDA is the one making this an issue about discrimination and politics, not the blood organizations and medical associations.