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FDA Considers Allowing Blood Donations From Some Gay Men

Several countries, including Australia, Japan and Great Britain, already encourage blood donations from some gay men.
Kevin Curtis
Getty Images/Science Photo Library
Several countries, including Australia, Japan and Great Britain, already encourage blood donations from some gay men.

The Food and Drug Administration is considering revising a ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with other men.

An FDA advisory committee Tuesday mulled the issues raised by changing the policy, which has been in effect since the early 1980s.

While the committee did not take a formal vote, some members said they favored changes to the policy that would not threaten the safety of the blood supply. One suggested solution (and the policy of several other countries) would permit donations from men who have gone a year or more without having sex with another man.

"The blood bank community has looked at the data and feels they can scientifically and medically support the change," said Dr. Toby Simon, senior medical director of the CSL Behring.

But others expressed concern that such a change might increase the risk of getting infected through a blood transfusion.

"Even if this leads to one or two cases of HIV infection, that's not acceptable," said Kenrad Nelson, a professor of epidemiology, international health and medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Since the early 1980s, any man who tells a blood bank he's had sex with another man at some point since 1977 has been banned from donating blood. The policy was created in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before scientists had discovered the human immunodeficiency virus, or developed good tests to screen blood for HIV. The ban was considered important to protect people from getting infected with the virus through transfusions.

But the policy has been the subject of intense debate for years. Gay rights advocates argue that it's discriminatory. They point out that while gay men may be at higher risk than the average blood donor of being infected with HIV, so are many other people — including intravenous drug users, sexually promiscuous heterosexuals, and heterosexual men who have had sex with a prostitute.

Another federal advisory committee, which advises the Health and Human Services Department, voted overwhelmingly a few weeks ago to change the policy. Under that committee's recommendation, men who have had sex with men would be allowed to donate if they have been celibate for at least a year. Several other countries, including Australia, Japan and Britain, have adopted similar policies.

The FDA will consider that recommendation, along with the discussion at Tuesday's hearing, in deciding whether to change its policy and in what way. The agency has not said when it might act.

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.