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On December 15, 80 members of the United States Senate and Congress sent a letter to the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), urging it to end the lifetime ban which prevents men who have sex with men from donating blood. The ban, which the Federal Drug Administration enforced in 1983, prohibits any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from donating blood. Groups like the Los Angeles LGBT Center applaud the action.

"We commend the United States senators and congress members who are urging the Department of Health and Human Services to end the 31-year-old lifetime ban, which prevents gay/bisexual men from donating blood. With significant advances in HIV testing, it is scientifically and medically warranted to revise this obsolete ban," said Los Angeles LGBT Center Director of Health and Mental Health Services Christopher Brown. "Blood donors should not be accepted or rejected based on their sexual orientation, but rather, on a risk assessment of their individual behaviors. The Williams Institute estimates that by removing the lifetime ban, the total annual blood supply in the Unites States would increase by 2 to 4 percent, which could save the lives of more than 1.8 million people."

The lawmakers' letter, led by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) with 75 of their congressional colleagues called on Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell to replace the outdated and discriminatory lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM) with a policy based on individual risk factors. The legislators expressed deep concerns with the recent recommendations made by the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood & Tissue Safety & Availability (ACBTSA). The full text of the letter is available here.

Under current regulations, MSM are banned from donating blood for life. AABB, the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers, and the American Medical Association all agree that the ban is no longer scientifically justified. Last month, the ACBTSA voted to replace the lifetime deferral policy with a one-year deferral policy, contingent on the implementation of a blood safety surveillance system, while dismissing a risk-based policy.

The legislators raised concerns about this proposal, writing, "A one-year deferral policy, like a lifetime ban, is a categorical exclusion based solely on the sex of an individual's sexual partner -- not his actual risk of carrying a transfusion-transmittable infection."

"The ACBTSA's proposed policy change would, in practice, leave that lifetime ban in place for the vast majority of MSM, even those who are healthy and low-risk," they continued. "Both policies are discriminatory, and both approaches are unacceptable. Low-risk individuals who wish to donate blood and help to save lives should not be categorically excluded because of outdated stereotypes."

The legislators also urged HHS to consider the work of implementing an infection monitoring system separately from the MSM deferral policy. The legislators wrote, "The ACBTSA's recommendation to hinge any change in the MSM blood donation policy to the establishment of a blood safety surveillance system is an arbitrary condition that will inevitably result in further unnecessary delays. To be clear, a comprehensive surveillance system for our blood supply is a critically important initiative to protect the blood supply from Hepatitis, HIV, and emerging diseases, and is long overdue... Years of HHS inaction on this issue is problematic, but so is the fact that ACBTSA has now suddenly chosen to make such a system a precondition of revising the donation policies specific to MSM."

The bicameral letter requests additional information from HHS regarding the timeline for reversing the lifetime deferral policy, actions being taken to work towards a risk-based deferral policy, and plans for implementing the long-overdue blood safety surveillance system.

Legislators have requested DHHS to respond by December 22, 2014.

From our media partner EDGE