US lifts lifetime ban on gay blood donations

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States on Monday (Dec 21) 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.

"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, because "insufficient data are available to support a change to the existing deferral recommendations at this time," the FDA said in a statement.

In order to arrive at the decision, the FDA said it "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.

People with hemophilia or related clotting disorders are also still barred from donating blood "for their own protection due to potential harm from large needles used during the donation process," the FDA said.

However, some gay men's health advocates found fault with the decision, saying it perpetuates 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"Although some may argue that a 12-month ban is better than a grossly outdated lifetime ban, the updated policy is still discriminatory and not rooted in the reality of HIV testing today, said Mr Dan Bruner, Whitman-Walker Health Senior Director of Policy.

The Whitman-Walker Clinic has called for a deferral period of no more than 30 days, "given that with current testing technology an HIV infection can be detected in donated blood within several weeks of exposure," he said.