FDA Won’t Change Rules To Allow Gay Men To Donate Blood

Blood Donor
Officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say they have no plans to lift the prohibition against gay men donating blood, despite pressure from blood collection agencies and civil liberties groups, who say the rules are outdated and discriminatory.
“Blood safety depends not only on donor testing, but on reducing the number of contaminated donations that may take place,” FDA spokeswoman Heidi Rebello said. “This is why we continue to defer persons whose behavior places them at high risk for infection”
FDA rules preclude any man who’s had a sexual encounter with another man since 1977 from donating blood. According to the FDA, such men are 60 times more likely to have HIV than the general population, 200 times more likely than first-time donors and 2,000 times more likely than repeat donors.
The issue flared up in Santa Cruz last December when Harbor High student body president Ronnie Childers helped organize a blood drive and then was not allowed to donate because he is gay. Since then, Harbor students and faculty have started lobbying state and federal legislators to pressure the FDA to change the rules.
Rebello said the FDA will change the rules only when it can be shown “that blood safety would not decrease. … and that errors of testing and inventory control are prevented”
No one disputes that sex between men is the leading cause of most HIV infections — about half of all new cases in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control — but the agencies that collect blood believe modern-day testing techniques greatly reduce the risk of tainted donations entering the blood supply.
Last year, the major blood-supply organizations, including Red Cross, which says it collects about half the blood in the nation, petitioned the FDA to change the rules to allow a man who has not had sex with another man for 12 months to give blood. In a letter to the FDA, they argued that “the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted”
The Red Cross declined to comment for this story.
Civil liberties groups say the policy unfairly singles out gay men with a lifetime ban while heterosexual men and women who have had sex with a person with an elevated risk of contracting HIV, a woman who has had sex with an intravenous drug user or a man who’s had sex with another man, for example, can donate after one year.
“The policy is discriminatory and based on an unscientific treatment of the subject,” said Jennifer Sinton, an attorney with the HIV Project in New York. “We are concerned with ensuring that the blood supply is safe and that screening is accurate and appropriate, but screening should be based on science and not ideology”
The FDA’s blood policies date to 1983, when doctors first realized that HIV was being transmitted through blood transfusions. The policy was last updated in 1992.
In response to the controversy over Ronnie Childers, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, is using his position on the House Appropriations Agriculture and FDA Subcommittee to press the FDA on the issue. At a hearing in February, Farr asked FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach to provide an official report on the agency’s reasoning behind the rules.
“When I heard that a local blood drive had to turn away gay male donors because of FDA regulations I was surprised,” Farr said. “When the Red Cross and other major blood banks are comfortable lifting the lifetime donation ban on gay males, I think it is time for the FDA to revise their regulations. How the FDA chooses to respond will determine our next step, but it is critical that our blood donation regulations encourage as many people as possible to safely donate blood.”
from The Santa Cruz Sentinel

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