A federal panel decides the current limits should stand,
but it proposes research that could ease them later
By Andrew Zajac
The Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON – A high-level federal public health committee Friday declined to recommend a change in restrictions on blood donations by gay men, but it proposed research that could eventually allow some currently barred men to give blood.
In voting 9 to 6 against making any immediate changes, committee members cited what they said was a tiny but still unacceptable increased risk of contamination of the blood supply if current standards were changed.
The restriction on gay men, imposed in 1983 in response to the HIV- AIDS crisis, bans any man who has had sex with another man even once since 1977 from giving blood.
A key point of contention at the two-day hearing in suburban Washington was the disparate treatment of gays, who incur a lifetime ban for a single sex act even years in the past, and heterosexual men or women, who are required to defer giving blood for only one year if they have sex with someone with HIV.
Acknowledging that uneven treatment, the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability said the current donor system is “suboptimal” because it permits “some potentially high-risk donations while preventing some potentially low-risk donations.”
It unanimously recommended a series of steps to guide health authorities in moving to a more nuanced policy that would take into account individual behavior, rather than assessing the characteristics of a broad group — such as men who have sex with men.
Recommendations include studying whether questionnaires filled out by would-be donors can be fine-tuned to identify gay men who are not high risk, as well as heterosexuals who are high risk and not weeded out by the current system.
The goal, panel members said, was to improve blood safety while seeking to diminish the discriminatory aspects of donor policy.
The committee also called for studying the feasibility of setting up a protocol of prescreening — testing currently banned men to allow them to become donors — and studying donor demographics to determine which groups are at greatest risk for transmitting a range of blood-borne infectious agents, including newly emerging pathogens.
The panel’s proposals, which are nonbinding, go to senior executives at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration, which has the final say on any change in policy.
See Related: HEALTH CARE
SENTINEL FOUNDER PAT MURPHY