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U.S. weighs lifting ban on gay men as blood donors

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By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

 (HealthDay News) -- Experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are midway through two days of hearings on whether a decades-old ban on gay men donating blood should stand or be lifted.

The current policy -- put into effect in 1985 during the early days of the AIDS crisis -- prevents any man who since 1977 has had sex with another man from donating blood.

In hearings that began Thursday, the Health and Human Services' Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability is considering calls for a revision of the policy in light of scientific innovations made over the last 25 years. Those changes have led to marked improvements in blood screening and HIV detection, experts say.

Current technology, for example, allows for detection of HIV in the blood in as little as two weeks following infection.

"When the policy was first instigated in the 1980s there was good reason for it, based on the testing technologies we had at the time," said Chris Collins, vice president and director of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR). "But since then, testing technology has greatly advanced in its ability to test what's in the blood. And yet our policy hasn't."

Many other groups agree with that view. In 2008, the American Medical Association called for ending the lifetime ban for gay men in favor of a policy that would accept blood donations from men who have sex with men -- so long as five years have elapsed since their last sexual encounter.

And in a policy statement issued Thursday by the American Red Cross, the organization said it believes that "the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is unwarranted and donor deferral criteria should be modified and made comparable with criteria for other groups at increased risk for sexual transmission of transfusion-transmitted infections."

As reported by MSNBC, one recent study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that replacing the ban with a one-year deferral period would lead to an increase of nearly 90,000 pints of donated blood each year. © iStockphoto.com   As reported by MSNBC, one recent study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that replacing the ban with a one-year deferral period would lead to an increase of nearly 90,000 pints of donated blood each year.
© iStockphoto.com
 

The Red Cross reiterated its position outlined in 2006, in a statement issued jointly with the American Association of Blood Banks and America's Blood Centers. That statement said that men who have sex with men should be allowed to donate, as long as 12 months have elapsed since their last sexual contact.

Various advocacy groups have echoed those sentiments. New York City-based Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), along with the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, amFAR, the Hemophilia Federation of America, and the National Hemophilia Foundation issued a joint statement earlier this week pushing for a repeal of the ban.

They urged Health and Human Services to "recommend any scientific research that is necessary to allow for the thoughtful consideration of alternative policies regarding donor deferral."

U.S. Food and Drug Administration experts have estimated that the rate of HIV infection among likely gay blood donors would be 15 times higher than that of the general public.

However, experts say the science of detecting HIV in donated blood has grown considerably over the past few decades. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found no evidence of any HIV transmission related to blood transfusions between 2002 and 2007.

Widening donations to include gay men would greatly help the blood supply. As reported by MSNBC, one recent study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that replacing the ban with a one-year deferral period would lead to an increase of nearly 90,000 pints of donated blood each year.

John Indence, vice president of marketing and communications at the National Hemophilia Foundation, said his group wants "the science to dictate the choice. We don't want it to be an emotional issue."

Dr. Norbert Gilmore, a professor of medicine at McGill University and an AIDS clinician in Montreal, agreed that the current policy makes little sense, but maintaining the public's faith in the safety of the blood supply is paramount.

"Trust is the word," he said. "The system is built on trust and runs on trust. Every donor who comes in has to tell the truth about his sexual history. And everyone who gets a donation has to believe that the blood is safe."

Even if tainted blood did get donated, it would most likely never make it through screening, he added.

"With the technology we have, the risks are so small that keeping this ban in place is like permanently grounding the entire aviation system because we're afraid that eventually we might have a single crash," he said.

Any decision taken by Health and Human Services would ultimately have to be approved by the FDA, which has failed to change the current policy after two reviews undertaken over the past decade.

More information

There's more on the safety of donated blood at the American Red Cross.

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