Lifting U.S. curbs on gay blood donors
seen years away: experts
Send a link to a friend
[June 17, 2016]
By Andrew M. Seaman and David Morgan
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S.
health regulators are under increasing pressure to remove restrictions
keeping most gay and bisexual men from donating blood, but experts say
any change would require years of research to guarantee the safety of
the blood supply.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration enacted a lifetime ban for
gay and bisexual men in the 1980s to protect against transmitting
the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. The agency
reduced the ban in December to a 12-month wait since a man's last
sexual encounter with another man.
Following Sunday's mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, more
than a dozen Democratic Party lawmakers called on the FDA to move
toward lifting the ban altogether. They argued that it wrongly
discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, rather than
determining whether a donor's actual behavior puts them at risk of
Their call came after members of the gay community tried to donate
blood in the aftermath of the Orlando attack but were turned away
based on their recent sexual history.
"We're still in an inherently contradictory posture of straight men
who are having unsafe sex with multiple partners being allowed to
give blood. A gay man in a 30-year monogamous relationship, who
practices safe sex, is not," Representative Mike Quigley, an
Illinois Democrat who serves as vice chair of the congressional LGBT
Equality Caucus, told Reuters.
The FDA maintains there is not enough scientific evidence to remove
"We empathize with those who might wish to donate, but reiterate
that at this time no one who needs blood is doing without it,"
spokeswoman Tara Goodin said in a statement. "That being said, the
FDA is committed to continuing to reevaluate its blood donor
deferral policies as new scientific information becomes available."
Blood supply experts say the FDA will need to determine whether the
move to a one-year waiting period for gay and bisexual men made the
blood supply less, more or just as safe.
That effort will take several years, and only then would the agency
be able to consider relaxing its restrictions further, said Brian
Custer, who has led a number of studies on the nation's blood supply
and is associate director of the Blood Systems Research Institute
(BSRI) in San Francisco.
Removing the waiting period altogether would also likely require a
large-scale study that tested blood samples of people who would be
banned under current criteria, said Dr. Michael Busch, a co-director
of BSRI. Busch helped discover in the 1980s that HIV could be
transmitted through blood transfusions.
"Those are difficult to design and execute," he said.
HIV disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men. While only about 4
percent of U.S. men have sex with other men, they represent about
two-thirds of the country's new infections, according to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[to top of second column]
Hundreds of community members line up outside a clinic to donate
blood after an early morning shooting attack at a gay nightclub in
Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius/File
All blood donated in the United States is screened for HIV, as well
as other transmissible diseases such as Hepatitis C and syphilis.
Blood supply experts note that such testing cannot detect HIV within
the earliest window of exposure, nine to 14 days.
In the past 12 years, as many as six people have been infected with
HIV through blood transfusion in the United States, according to Dr.
Richard Benjamin, a former chief medical officer of the American Red
"That risk is always going to be there. People who donate blood
within two weeks of exposure always will be missed by testing," said
Benjamin, now an executive at Cerus Corp, whose technology kills
pathogens in blood plasma and blood platelets.
One study by FDA researchers published in January suggested that
dropping all donor restrictions on men who have sex with men would
result in 31 more units of HIV-infected blood being missed by
screening tests and entering the blood supply each year. Nearly 16
million blood donations are collected in the United States each
year, according to the American Red Cross.
Groups representing the nation's largest blood centers, including
the American Red Cross and America's Blood Centers, said they
support the FDA's current rules, which are in line with policies in
the UK, France, Australia and the Netherlands.
"Policy at this level moves at a slower pace than people would
prefer, but it is years, not decades away," said Custer, one of the
blood supply experts, referring to the FDA.
(Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by
Michele Gershberg and Ross Colvin)
[© 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2016 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.