The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services today detailed what steps would need to be taken in order for the country's current ban on blood donations from gay men to be reviewed again.
Since 1983, the Food & Drug Administration has banned "men who have sex with men" from donating blood. The official guidelines describe:
"You should not give blood if you have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test, or if you have done something that puts you at risk for becoming infected with HIV. You are at risk for getting infected if you ... are a male who has had sexual contact [oral or anal sex] with another male, even once, since 1977..."
The Dept. of HHS' new movement on the issue comes after pressure from Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Mike Quigley, who requested that HHS officials responded to a Question and Answer document to provide more information about the department's stance on the policy.
The document concludes that, at the earliest, review of the ban could be revisited between 24 and 36 months from now. Some components of the studies that would need to occur have sufficient funding, from other components still lack funding.
The last time the policy was taken under review was in June 2010. Ultimately, the review by the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability did not overturn the ban.
Of course, a lifetime ban on men who have sex with men from donating blood is an outdated policy that ignores medical breakthroughs in HIV testing and research. The period during which HIV is undetectable has been dramatically shortened to between 9 and 11 days after infection, so a lifelong ban is simply discrimination. Dozens of organizations, including the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers, and the American Medical Association, support a revision of the lifetime ban.
Four Proposed Studies
The question-and-answer document that HHS officials submitted for Kerry and Quigley outline four proposed studies that the department says would adequately address questions concerning the blood ban. The studies are:
a) How does the risk of blood transmissible diseases in the current donor
population relate to risk factors in donors?
b) What is the root cause of Quarantine Release Errors (QRE), the accidental release of blood not cleared for use that occur at blood collection centers and potentially put the blood supply at risk, and what mitigations can be considered?
c) Donor evaluation:
1) Do potential blood donors correctly understand and properly interpret the
current standard questionnaire used to obtain donor history?
2) What motivates a man with MSM behavioral history to donate and would
MSM be likely to comply with modified deferral criteria?
d) Would alternative screening strategy (e.g. pre- and/or post qualifying donation
infectious disease testing) for MSM (and potentially other high-risk donors)
assure blood safety while enabling collection of data that could demonstrate
safe blood collection from a subset of MSM or other currently deferred donors
(e.g. men with a history of abstinence from MSM behavior for a defined time
The document concludes with the department's insight into whether a change in the policy stands a change:
The Department has worked to develop a plan that will yield scientific data that are
currently needed to re-evaluate the current policy based on the ACBSA
recommendations. When these studies are complete, the Department is committed to a
full evidence-based evaluation of the policy. If the data indicate that a change is possible
while protecting the blood supply, we will consider a change to the policy
A Discriminatory Policy
Kerry and Quigley applauded the HHS' actions today in a press release. "We've been working on this a long time in a serious way and I'm glad Secretary Sebelius responded with concrete steps to finally remove this policy from the books," Kerry said. "HHS is doing their due-diligence and we plan to stay focused on the end game - a safe blood supply and an end to this discriminatory ban."
I remember when I first learned about the policy three years ago, when I tried to donate blood during my freshman year of college. I'd previously donated in high school, before I became - ahem - a truly participating member of the LGBT community, and I hadn't really taken notice to the MSM clause.
The second time I went to donate, however, I definitely took notice, and I didn't understand why my sexual orientation was being taken into consideration. I had been recently tested for STIs, and I was negative, as clean as I was when I donated the first time. At this drive, I asked the on-site medical practitioner why I was ineligible. He looked at me half-apologetically, explaining with a well-rehearsed response, "It's an FDA-enforced ban that's been in place since 1983. I advise you write to your senator and explain your feelings about the policy."
With luck (and sanity, and logic), the Health & Human Services Department will actually complete these studies, and in a few years, perhaps gay men will be able to legally contribute to our country's blood banks.
See the full documents from the Dept. of Health & Human Services: Q&A (PDF) and Process Chart (PDF).