Move to end US gay blood donor ban
US health officials are recommending an end to the nation's lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.
The Food and Drug Administration said it favours replacing the blanket ban with a new policy barring donations from men who have had man-on-man sex in the previous 12 months.
The new rules would put the US in line with other countries including Australia, Japan and the UK, and end a 31-year-old policy that many medical groups and gay activists say is no longer justified.
Activists, however, questioned whether requiring a year of celibacy from gay men in order to donate blood amounted to a significant policy shift.
The lifetime ban dates from the early years of the AIDS crisis and was intended to protect the blood supply from what was a then little-understood disease.
But many medical groups, including the American Medical Association, say the policy is no longer supported by science, given advances in HIV testing. Gay activists say the ban is discriminatory and perpetuates negative stereotypes.
The agency will recommend the switch in draft guidelines early next year and move to finalise them after taking comments from the public.
FDA deputy director Dr Peter Marks declined to give a timeframe for completing the process but said: "We commit to working as quickly as possible on this issue."
He said some of the most compelling evidence for changing the policy comes from Australia, which put in place a one-year ban on donations over a decade ago.
Recently published studies showed no change in the safety of the blood supply after making the switch.
Additionally, studies conducted by the US government suggest gay and bisexual men are actually more likely to abide by donation guidelines under a 12-month prohibition period.
All blood donors take a questionnaire about their health and sexual behaviour, but some gay men reportedly answer inaccurately to donate blood.
All US blood donations are screened for HIV but testing only detects the virus after it has been in the bloodstream about 10 days.
Still, FDA officials said current research does not support reducing the donation ban below the one-year mark, though the agency may consider changing the timeframe in the future.
According to government figures, men who have had sex with other men represent about 2% of the US population, yet account for at least 62% of all new HIV infections in the U.S.
The American Red Cross estimates the risk of getting an HIV-positive blood donation is 1 in 1.5 million. About 15.7 million blood donations are collected in the US each year.
Despite the policy shift, gay advocates said requiring a year of abstinence from gay and bisexual men was unrealistic and not supported by science.
"This new policy cannot be justified in light of current scientific research and updated blood screening technology," said David Stacy of Human Rights Campaign, the largest US gay rights group.
The US blood banking system already bars donations from people who have had sex with a prostitute or an intravenous drug user in the past 12 months.
The FDA implemented the lifetime ban on donations from men who have sex with men in 1983, when health officials were first recognising the risk of contracting AIDS via blood transfusions.
Under the policy, blood donations are barred from any man who has had sex with another man at any time since 1977 - the start of the AIDS epidemic in the US.
The push for a new policy gained momentum in 2006, when the Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America's Blood Centres called the ban "medically and scientifically unwarranted". Last year the American Medical Association voted to oppose the policy.
Patient groups that rely on a safe blood supply, including the National Haemophilia Foundation, have also voiced support for dropping the ban.
The switch in policy could increase the U.S. blood supply by 2 to 4% by making 2 million additional men eligible to donate, according to researchers at UCLA's Williams Institute.