US lifts ban on blood donations by gay men

WASHINGTON • The United States has formally lifted its lifetime ban on blood donations by gay men, replacing the rule with a 12-month waiting period after last sexual contact.

The decision by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) brings US policy in line with several other developed nations, including France, Japan and Australia, which all recently moved to allow men who have sex with men (MSM) to donate blood, as long as they have not had intimate relations in the past year.

The new rule overturns a ban that dates to 1983, when the Aids epidemic was just emerging and many experts were fearful of contaminating the blood supply with a poorly understood disease.

"In reviewing our policies to help reduce the risk of HIV transmission through blood products, we rigorously examined several alternative options, including individual risk assessment," said Dr Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA's Centre for Biologics Evaluation and Research, on Monday.

"Ultimately, the 12-month deferral window is supported by the best available scientific evidence, at this point in time, relevant to the US population."

The ban remains in place for commercial sex workers and people who use injection drugs, the FDA said in a statement.

It said that it had "examined a variety of recent studies, epidemiologic data and shared experiences from other countries that have made recent MSM deferral policy changes".

"These published studies document no change in risk to the blood supply with use of the 12-month deferral," it said.

Singapore's Health Sciences Authority (HSA), however, said there was a window period during early stages of infection where even the best available laboratory tests may not detect the infection.

"Therefore, people who engage in activities that pose an increased risk of infectious disease such as HIV and hepatitis B or C are not allowed to donate blood," a HSA spokesman told The Straits Times.

"These include men who have had sex with other men, and people who have multiple sex partners, or have engaged in casual sex."

The HSA said it would consider the FDA's revised recommendations and changes in other countries' policies and assess the risk as part of a regular review of the deferral policy in Singapore.

Some US gay men's health advocates said the FDA's decision perpetuated a harmful stigma around HIV.

"Although some may argue that a 12-month ban is better than a grossly outdated lifetime ban, the updated policy is still discriminatory and not rooted in the reality of HIV testing today," said Mr Dan Bruner, senior director of policy at Whitman-Walker Health. The Whitman-Walker clinic has called for a deferral period of no more than 30 days.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'US lifts ban on blood donations by gay men'. Print Edition | Subscribe