Lawmakers send letter as Health Department committee meets to consider changes to guidelines
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability began meeting Thursday, June 10, as activists and a long list of members of Congress ramped up their calls to end the lifetime ban on blood donations by men who have had sex with men.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was among the more than 40 Congressmembers calling on the Helath Department to revise the FDA ban.
"The medical and scientific communities have been crystal clear that there is no longer any scientific evidence to warrant this policy," Kerry said.
He added that he and other lawmakers from both houses of Congress are looking forward to "hearing HHS’s recommendations and working with the [Obama] administration to ensure that an outdated policy is brought into line with the world we live in today."
Kerry worked with U.S. Rep. Mark Quigley, D-Ill., in spearheading a letter to HHS calling for the ban to be revised. The letter is co-signed by nine senators and 33 representatives.
Quigley said that "adjusting our restrictions" on blood donations would "demonstrate our commitment to equality and offer those in need of life-saving blood transfusions some much-needed help."
U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said that HHS policies have not kept up with scientific advances over the past 20 years. And U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said revising the ban would be "a common sense move that will save lives."
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., noted the "chronic shortages of blood donations," and said the country must "move beyond the offensive and incorrect stereotype that automatically links gay men to risky sexual practices and, therefore, to HIV/AIDS."
Current FDA policy — in place since 1985 — prohibits men who have engaged in even a single sexual act with another man at any time since 1977. However, men and women who have had sexual contact with an HIV-positive partner of the opposite gender are allowed to donate blood after a waiting period of only one year.
The legislators also noted that blood shortages are expected over the summer months.
The lawmakers point out the discrepancy in a letter to Dr. Arthur W. Bracey, chair of the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability.
"As the policy currently stands, a number of potential oversights and medically unjustifiable double standards seem apparent. For instance, there is no proscribed consideration of safer sex practices, individuals who routinely practice unsafe heterosexual sex face no deferral period at all while monogamous and married homosexual partners who practice safe sex are banned for life," the letter states.
"In fact," it continues, "a woman who has sexual relations with an HIV-positive male is deferred for one year, while a man who has had sexual relations with another man, even a monogamous partner, is deferred for life. Even individuals who have paid prostitutes for heterosexual sex face a deferral period of one year while gay men face a lifetime ban. These do not strike us as scientifically sound conclusions."
In the letter, legislators urge the committee to "look beyond blanket deferrals" and screen donors based on "real high-risk behavior. Not doing so, they warned, puts "the integrity of the blood donation system at risk."
All nine senators who signed the letter are Democrats, as were all 33 of the U.S. representatives. No legislators from Texas signed the letter.
The lawmakers noted that the American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and the American Medical Association are among "the many organizations" calling on for the donor guidelines to be revised. The ACLU and most LGBT advocacy organizations also support the revisions.
The Red Cross and Blood Centers joined in issuing a statement in 2006 that recommended the deferral period for gay and bisexual men be reduced to one year from the time of their last sexual contact with another man, and that said that evidence suggests any tainted blood would be flagged through collection centers’ routine antibody and nucleic acid amplification testing.
At present, less than 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, according to a University of Minnesota Medical School study from 2007. Of that 38 percent, less than 10 percent actually do donate, the study said.
In explaining the need for the ban, the FDA last year cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicate that men who have sex with men and would be likely to donate blood are 15 times more likely to have HIV than the general population.
The FDA also said that men who have sex with men are the largest single donor group discovered to be HIV-positive through blood donor testing, and that the ban on gay blood donors significantly reduces the risk of someone who does not know he is HIV-positive donating infected blood.
Blood banks require potential donors to fill out a questionnaire about their health status, their travels outside the U.s. and any high-risk behavior in which they have engaged. Those banned from donating also include people who lived in certain foreign countries for an extended length of time and people who use certain medications.
The FDA says screening of blood donations and testing of donors has made the risk of contracting HIV through a blood transfusion virtually nonexistent.
However, FDA officials say, even a one-in-a-million chance can be significant considering that there are more than 20 million transfusions of blood and blood products that occur in the U.S. each year.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 11, 2010.