No Changes in Restrictions on Gay Blood Donors

A federal policy that bans blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM) should remain essentially unchanged, a federal advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted Friday in a 9-6 decision.

At the same time, the panel made several recommendations that could clear the way for a relaxing of the lifetime prohibition. The panel's proposals are non-binding and now go to officials within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for review.

FDA's current policy states that men who have had sex with another man at any time since 1977 are currently deferred as blood donors. Testimony at the two-day hearing pointed out an inconsistency in the agency's blood donation approach, as heterosexual men or women who have had sex with someone with HIV are deferred from donating blood for one year.

The panel said the current policy was "suboptimal," as it allows "some potentially high-risk donations wile preventing some potentially low-risk donations."

Representatives from the AIDS Institute, the Foundation for AIDS Research, and the blood bank trade organization AABB called for a change in the policy, including limiting the ban against donations from men who have sex with men to one year after the last homosexual experience.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), addressed the panel to urge a lifting of the ban.

"This is a discussion with real social significance for gay men," Kerry said. "Today, this lingering policy carries with it a social stigma for this population that is still engaged in battles for civil rights on a whole array of fronts."

Panel members made a series of recommendations that call for screening of blood donors based on individual behavior rather than characteristics of a larger group. The goal, they said, was to increase blood safety and reduce discriminatory aspects of blood donation policy.

One recommendation called for an analysis of the feasibility of prescreening to identify which demographic groups are at greatest risk of transmitting blood-borne pathogens.