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Members of Congress Join Advocates in Pressuring FDA to Change Blood Donation Rules

June 29, 2016

blood donor arms

Credit: Creative_Outlet for iStock via Thinkstock

Members of Congress and advocates joined together yesterday in a media call demanding that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lift its ban on blood donations from sexually active men who have sex with men (MSM). The ban got a lot attention this month in the wake of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. The shooting left 53 people injured and prompted local blood banks to put out a call for donations, which served to highlight the fact that many members of the community most impacted by the shooting would be turned away.

Until last year, all men who identified as gay or bisexual were automatically excluded from donating blood, based on a rule that had been in place since early in the HIV epidemic when there was no easy way to test the nation's blood supply for the virus. Advocates argued for years that that rule was both antiquated and discriminatory, and ultimately the FDA agreed.

In December 2015, the FDA released new guidance for the blood product industry that replaced the lifetime ban on donations from gay and bisexual men with a ban on any man who had had sex with another man within the last 12 months (as well as any women who have had sex with them). The FDA argued that this 12-month deferral period for donations was necessary to keep the blood supply safe as HIV is still far more common among MSM than other groups. In 2011, 57% of those living with HIV were MSM. With the 12-month deferral, scientists calculated that there would be a one in 1.5 million chance of someone receiving a transfusion of HIV-infected blood. Without it, they say, that chance increases to one in 375,000.

The blood supply is screened for HIV (as well as many other diseases), but the risk cannot be completely eliminated through testing because of the window period -- the time right after infection when even the most sensitive tests can't pick up antibodies. However, as HIV testing has gotten better, the window period has shortened. Most cases can now be detected within nine to 11 days after infection, though some do take longer.


The FDA also noted that MSM is not the only group that is subjected to a 12-month deferral. Anyone who got a piercing or a tattoo or was accidentally stuck by a needle in the hospital is asked to wait one year before donating blood, as is anyone successfully treated for gonorrhea or syphilis. Moreover, the rules changes as risks emerge. Today, anyone who has visited one of the countries where the Zika virus is prevalent or had sex with a man who has visited those countries must wait one month to donate blood.

Still, advocates think the 12-month deferral for MSM remains discriminatory because it doesn't focus on an individual's own risk. They point out that gay men who have been in committed, monogamous relationships for years or even decades may be at far less risk than heterosexual men or women with multiple partners.

During yesterday's media call, hosted by National Gay Blood Drive and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) noted:

The gender of one's partner has nothing to do with whether one is engaged in risky behavior or not. It's high time for this outdated and discriminatory policy to end, and I'm confident with such broad spread support among both the American public as well as members of Congress the FDA will be moved to look at the science that shows, in fact, that there's nothing inherently different about the blood of gay or bisexual Americans.

Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL), who is from Orlando, added:

At times of tragedy, giving blood is a form of showing solidarity, showing concern for the victims, and even a form of citizenship. We can't say that we have first-class citizens and second-class citizens, we can't say some people can give blood and other people can't based upon their sexual orientation or anything like that.

Polis and Grayson are two of over 130 members of Congress who signed on to a letter asking the FDA to lift the 12-month ban. The effort is being led by Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in the Senate and by Polis, Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) in the House.

Martha Kempner is a freelance writer, consultant and sexual health expert.

Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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