ORLANDO – A federal panel heard evidence this week to consider overturning a 15 year-old ban on blood bank donations by gay men – a holdover from the fear-filled days of the HIV virus and AIDS.
But instead of suggesting the removal of the ban, members voted late Thursday to recommend funding continued research and establishing a Transfusion-Transmissible Infections Monitoring System.
The decision was a blow to advocates who have been pressing to overturn the 1985 FDA decision they say stigmatizes gay men and ignores advances in treatment and detection in the decades since.
“It is inexcusable to hide behind statistics that highlight a percentage of gay men who do participate in risky behavior… and then to ignore the sexual behavior of everyone else,” said Brett Donnelly, co-founder of Banned4Life, a Central Florida-based not-for-profit dedicated to lifting the ban. “This policy is not just discriminatory, but it puts every American who needs blood transfusions at risk.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability listened to research presentations Wednesday and Thursday before voting on the recommendation. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will have the final say.
AIDS-detection technology has improved tremendously since the late 1970s. Then, tests only checked for antibodies to the virus. Today, they check for parts of the virus itself.
In the spring, Blake Lynch, an Orlando nursing student, tried to donate blood to his friend Emmy Derisbrun, who has sickle cell anemia. Blood transfusions can be life-saving for sickle cell patients. When he was turned away, Lynch formed Banned4Life to push for change and educate the public. Central Florida’s blood banks planned to follow any FDA changes in policy.
“OneBlood is always open to reviewing all current deferral policies established by the FDA in the event a restriction can be lifted and allow more eligible people into the donor pool,” Pat Michaels, spokesman for Florida’s Blood Centers said.
Advocates for the current policy say politics is driving the push for change rather than science. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report Nov. 29 that said men who have sex with other men account for nearly two-thirds of new HIV infections and approximately half of the 1.1 million people nationwide living with HIV.
The HHS heard seven presentation on the MSM (men who have had sex with men) blood-donor issue. In 2010, the advisory group agreed that the ban on MSM blood donations was “suboptimal,” but kept it in place pending additional research to “create a road map forward,” one panelist said.
The presentations this week provided updates about the blood-donor questionnaire, “quarantined” blood units and related studies designed to help craft a new MSM policy.
The FDA established the current policy after public health officials realized thousands of hemophiliacs were receiving – and dying from – transfusions of HIV/AIDS-infected blood. Among the most famous victims: tennis star Arthur Ashe, believed to have received the disease from a transfusion during coronary bypass surgery.
The National Hemophilia Foundation who advocates for blood users say that because patients bear 100 percent of the risk in blood transfusion any changes must be based solely on scientific evidence.
Dozens of members of Congress urged Sebelius to expedite the process to change the MSM ban, pointing in part a June vote by the American Medical Association.
From our media partner Watermark