Medical Association Says Gay Men Should Be Allowed to Donate Blood

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Members of the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to end a decades-old ban against gay men donating blood.

The ban was put in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1983 in order to protect the nation’s blood banks from HIV-infected blood. At the time, no reliable and practical test for detecting HIV in the blood existed, and since gay men were among those most likely to be infected, the policy made sense.

With advances in HIV testing — an at-home kit is now available — the AMA reflected growing opinion that the practice is now discriminatory. “The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science,” said Dr. William Kobler, AMA board member in a statement. “This new policy urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone.”

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The FDA breaks down the risk in explaining the policy:

In 2010, MSM [men who have had sex with other men] accounted for at least 61% of all new HIV infections in the U.S. and an estimated 77% of diagnosed HIV infections among males were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact. Between 2008 and 2010, the estimated overall incidence of HIV was stable in the U.S. However the incidence in MSM increased 12%, while it decreased in other populations. The largest increase was a 22% increase in MSM aged 13 to 24 years. Since younger individuals are more likely to donate blood, the implications of this increase in incidence need to be further evaluated.

Improved testing methods make this policy outdated, however, and could be costing blood banks valuable opportunities to fill their shelves with much-needed blood. A 2010 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated there would be 219,000 more pints of donated blood if gay men were allowed to donate. In countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada, gay men are allowed to donate blood if they have abstained from having sex with another may for certain periods of time, typically one year. The researchers found that such a one-year abstinence requirement would lead to 89,716 more pints of donated blood.

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The AMA isn’t the first to raise concerns about the ban. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created an advisory committee to review the FDA ban and in 2012 the agency submitted a request for further research into changing the blood donation policies.

How dangerous is the risk of contracting HIV from donated blood? Dr. Richard Benjamin, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross, told that while testing for HIV has improved, the American Red Cross estimates at least half a dozen people have contracted HIV from donor blood over the last 10 years,. “There is a thing called the window period. It’s a window period of 11 days where you may test negative, but your blood may be infectious and you can transmit HIV,” Benjamin told CBS.

The AMA is advocating that gay men who want to donate blood be tested on a case-by-case basis, so that those who no longer show signs of HIV can become donors. If the ban were lifted, it’s likely that blood banks would implement some type of waiting period during which potential donors are tested appropriately to ensure their blood is safe.

The ban was put in place at the height of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, when the disease was still not even fully understood. The policy is that men who have had sex with other men (MSM) at any time since 1977 (the beginning of the AIDS epidemic) cannot donate blood because they are at an higher risk for HIV, hepatitis B and other infections that can be transmitted by a blood transfusion.