It was 1983 when the US Food and Drug Administration banned any man who had sexual relations with another man — even once since 1977 — from donating blood. This regulation was due to the government’s concern about the increasing spread of HIV, Hepatitis B and other transmissible, blood- and fluid-borne infections. This ruling was made during a time when the government had limited knowledge of HIV and AIDS, and blood banks’ screening technologies were limited. After recent lobbying and petitions from various medical groups, legislators and gay rights activists arguing that the ban is outdated and prejudiced, the agency recently held a two-day discussion on the matter on December 2-3, 2014.
The Department of Health and Human Services advised that the ban be replaced with a one year deferral period which would merely require that male potential blood donors refrain from giving blood within a year of their last sexual contact with the same sex. The FDA said it will be considering this recommendation during the following days of meeting over the matter, as while the agency recognizes the unfiar bias of the current ban and its tendency to reduce the number of healthy blood donors, it is still obligated to minimize “even the small risk of getting infectious diseases such as HIV or hepatitis” through a blood transfusion.
Glenn Cohen, a Harvard Law School professor who recently argued in the Journal of the American Medical Association for a new U.S. policy along with two colleagues, said other countries have done the same policy amendments in that they have done away with blanket bans in favor of deferral periods, with some even shorter than 12 months. Furthermore, today’s blood screening technologies have come a long way since the ban was put in place, and while it is true that there is a period when HIV cannot yet be diagnosed in an infected potential donor, experts claim a 12-month deferral is more than enough to eliminate the risk.
While the FDA is generally known to follow advisory panels’ recommendations, it is not obligated to rule in their favor. According to a 2010 study from the University of California at Los Angeles, whatever decision the agency makes will not make a significant impact on the country’s supply of blood donations, as lifting the ban would result in an increase of only 2%-4% (an additional 615,000 pints annually). If the FDA replaces the ban with a deferral, there would be an additional 317,000 pints per year only. This prompts the notion that the change in policy would be more of a political statement that sends a timely message on today’s cultural and social changes.