By Tyler TerMeer, Executive Director, Cascade AIDS Project
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the elimination of the outdated lifetime blood-donation ban of gay and bisexual men, enacting instead a new rule that excludes men who have had sex with men within the past year from donating blood. The removal of this lifetime ban marks a long anticipated and critical step forward, however, this year one-year deferral period continues to wrongly discriminate against gay and bisexual men.
The lifetime blood-donation ban was established at a time of crisis, early in an epidemic, when reported cases were primarily among the gay community. In these early years of the epidemic, blood transfusions were at increased risk for transmission of HIV infection. By the end of 1983, with more than 2,100 AIDS-related deaths and very little known about the transmission of the disease, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a policy excluding blood donations from men who have had sex with other men any time after 1977.
In 1985, however, an HIV test became available, and screening of blood donations rapidly became universal, making the US blood supplies among the safest in the world. Despite this progress, the FDA upheld this inherently discriminatory ban and has recently announced new policy that is equally as harmful.
As an openly gay man and a person living with HIV, I am personally offended by the FDA’s new policy that further promotes stigma against HIV as well as gay and bisexual men in this country. Since the early years of epidemic, we have witnessed first-hand how fear, stigma, and discrimination have fueled the spread of HIV. The FDA missed a moment of opportunity in which they could have created an actual risk-based blood donation policy that would have taken steps toward eliminating fear and discrimination. Instead, by implementing this policy, the FDA will continue to fan the flames of the outdated stereotype that HIV is only a “gay disease.” The American Medical Association, the Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers, and the Association of Blood Banks agree that the lifetime ban is not only discriminatory but is also medically and scientifically unwarranted.
Cascade AIDS Project has long stood with national advocates in recommending that the FDA establish policies that carefully distinguish between high- and low-risk behavior based on a modern and medically based understanding of HIV transmission. As members of the AIDS United Public Policy Committee, CAP also continues to urge the FDA to move forward with the implementation of a hemovigilance system to track, report, investigate and analyze risks and adverse reactions that can occur as a result of blood transfusion. Such a system would increase the safety of the blood supply and provide an early warning system for potential threats.
The outdated lifetime ban on gay men donating blood has not made sense for decades, but the FDA’s recently updated policy is not the answer. This policy definitely doesn’t seem to take any consideration for the advancements in blood screening, HIV treatment or of biomedical HIV prevention strategies such as Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). As a community we must call on the FDA to move to an individualized, comprehensive and effective deferral system for all donors based on actual — not perceived — risk.