Lawmakers urge FDA to lift blood ban for gay men

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Two Democratic lawmakers joined the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and others Tuesday in urging the Food and Drug Administration to change its blood donation policy.

The FDA restricts gay men who have had sexual contact with another man in the past 12 months from giving blood.

One of the lawmakers to speak Tuesday, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, who is openly gay, has been fighting to overturn this policy.

Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, who represents Orlando, suggested using this month’s Pulse nightclub shootings to show renewed respect for people’s rights. He said blood donation screening should be based on science and a donor’s safe and monogamous sexual behavior, no matter their orientation.

After the shooting, which killed 49 people and injured dozens more, Orlando’s OneBlood donation center put out an immediate call for donors to help the hospitals working with the influx of injured. Its Twitter feed specified an “urgent need for O Neg, O Pos and AB Plasma donors.” Yet friends, loved ones and even spouses of those injured were unable to give blood, Polis said.

In the conference call, Polis said it’s time for the FDA to update their restrictions and immediately address this problem.

In 1983, in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the FDA implemented a policy banning donations from men who have sex with men (called MSMs), women who have sex with MSMs and transgender people. The FDA’s recommendation attempted to safeguard the national blood supply by “indefinitely” deferring donations from populations considered to be at high risk.

Officially, in September 1985, the FDA recommended that “blood establishments indefinitely defer male donors who have had sex with another male, even one time, since 1977 … due to the strong clustering of AIDS illness and the subsequent discovery of high rates of HIV infection in the population.”

The FDA updated its decades-old policy in December when it recommended that men who have sex with men be deferred 12 months since their last sexual contact with another man. At the time, the American Medical Association commended the agency for ending the lifetime ban.

“The AMA has been a strong advocate for eliminating public policies that do not align with scientific evidence and best ethical practices in public policy,” the group stated.

The Human Rights Campaign said the change was a “step in the right direction” but added that the new policy “still falls short of a fully acceptable solution because it continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men.”

Each unit of blood donated in the United States must undergo a series of tests for infectious diseases, including Hepatitis B and C, HIV and syphilis, as defined by FDA policy.

The FDA told CNN that it carefully considered alternative criteria, including individual risk assessment for HIV, instead of the current 12-month deferral for MSMs. “However, evidence shows that self-reporting presents significant issues,” the FDA said. Specifically, the truth and reliability of self-reports of monogamy — in any type of sexual relationship — present a problem.

For now, the agency said it continues to review its donor deferral policies to ensure that they reflect the most up-to-date scientific knowledge.

“This process must be data-driven, so the timeframe for future changes is not something we can predict,” spokeswoman Tara Goodin noted.

With assistance from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the agency has also implemented a safety monitoring system that will provide crucial information to inform policy actions.

On Tuesday, Polis and Grayson joined the National Gay Blood Drive and over 130 members of Congress in petitioning the FDA to change its policy and screen donors “based on behavior, not sexual orientation.”

“A discriminatory FDA ban that requires gay men to be celibate for one year to donate meant that thousands of would-be healthy donors were turned away from Orlando blood banks that desperately needed their blood,” commented Courtney Hagen of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Their community was under attack, but they were unable to do even the simplest of acts to help it heal.”

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