Federal health officials are lifting the nation’s 32-year-old lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, but major restrictions will continue to limit who can donate.
The Food and Drug Administration announced it will replace the blanket ban with a new policy barring donations from men who have had sex with a man in the previous year. While the one-year-ban has been criticized by activists it matches policies in other countries, including Australia, Japan and the U.K.
Gay rights activists said the new policy is a “step in the right direction,” but falls short.
“It continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men,” said David Stacy, of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay rights group. “It simply cannot be justified in light of current scientific research and updated blood screening technology.”
Monday’s policy shift was first announced in late 2014 and followed years of outreach by medical groups and gay rights groups who said the blanket ban no longer made sense. FDA officials signaled their agreement on Dec. 21, saying in a statement the change is “backed by sound science and continues to protect our blood supply.”
The lifetime ban was put in place during 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, argued that the policy was no longer supported by science, given advances in HIV testing.
All U.S. blood donations are screened for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But there is a roughly 10-day window between initial infection and when the virus can be detected in the bloodstream. The American Red Cross estimates the risk of getting an HIV-positive blood donation is 1 in 1.5 million for U.S. patients. About 15.7 million blood donations are collected in the U.S. each year.
In 2006 the Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers called the ban “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”
The FDA concluded that moving to a one-year abstinence requirement would not change the safety of the U.S. blood supply, based on data from Australia and other sources.
On the current blood donor questionnaire, men are asked if they have ever had sex with another man since 1977 — the start of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Potential donors who answer positively are barred from donating blood. The new questionnaire, as outlined by the FDA, would ask men if they have had sex with another man in the last 12 months.