"Gay and bisexual men would be able to give blood for the first time since being barred from making donations during the early, dark days of the AIDS epidemic, under a proposal announced Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration.
But there’s a caveat to the change that many in California’s gay community don’t welcome: Male blood donors must abstain from sex with another man for at least a year before they give.
While the new policy is being lauded as progress on the civil rights front, many insist the 12-month restriction isn’t necessary from a safety standpoint and remains both prejudicial and impractical.
“It’s just not reality. People are not going to forgo sex for a year so they can donate blood,” said San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is gay and whose district includes the city’s famously gay-friendly Castro neighborhood. “The proposed policy doesn’t really end discrimination against gay men.”
Federal officials said this week that testing of the nation’s blood supply and the understanding of AIDS have improved significantly since donations were banned in 1983, when infections were taking off and health experts worried about the disease spreading through transfusions. But the scientific gains haven’t been enough to go without a 12-month abstinence period, they said.
The wait time that the FDA is proposing is the same that currently applies to straight men or women who have had sex with a prostitute, an intravenous drug user or a partner infected with HIV, the virus behind AIDS.
“Compelling scientific evidence is not available to support a change to a deferral period of less than one year while still ensuring the safety of the blood supply,” Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said at a news conference Tuesday.
Marks said the FDA looked hard at other nations where gay men were allowed to give blood, notably Australia, and felt a similar policy — with a similar abstinence time — was safe to proceed with.
The FDA intends to formalize its policy change next year and open the proposal to public comment before signing off on a new plan. The agency did not set a timetable for completion.
The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the city’s oldest and largest AIDS service organization, was critical of the proposal, suggesting that the deferral period was overly conservative given the current technology behind blood safety tests.
“The justification for a yearlong restriction is not based on science,” said Ernest Hopkins, director of legislative affairs for the foundation, which has long pushed for a policy change. “We really do have a much better way of testing blood today.”
Paul Volberding, professor of medicine and director of the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF, agreed.
While Volberding applauded the FDA’s move as a good “first step,” he said HIV can be detected in a donor’s blood within days or weeks of the person becoming infected.
“The tests are so sensitive now that a one-year abstinence period doesn’t make much sense,” he said.
Momentum for the FDA’s policy change has been building. Blood-collection organizations, including the American Red Cross, American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers, have come out against a ban on gay donors, and last year the American Medical Association took a position supporting a change.
According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, the FDA proposal could boost the nation’s blood supply by 2 to 4 percent by allowing 2.2 million more men to donate blood.
Blood Centers of the Pacific, one of Northern California’s largest blood centers, said the move would give the organization a needed boost.
“We’re struggling all the time to get donations up,” said Kent Corley, spokesman for the organization. “I would hope that this change makes a difference. I would hope that we hear of gay men being able to come in and attempt to donate. We certainly need the blood.”