Following two days of testimony, a federal panel voted against recommending changes to ease the current restrictions on blood donation by gay men, saying more research was needed to help "create a road map forward" for future change.
By a 9-6 vote, members of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability agreed Friday to continue the current donor policy, which rejects blood donations from any man who has had sex with another man — a category know as "MSM" — even once in the past 33 years.
Gay rights groups and others say the 25-year-old policy is needlessly discriminatory, and the American Red Cross and other blood-collecting groups support a shorter deferral policy, down to as little as 12 months. But blood-user groups lobbied to keep the current policy, saying further research is needed.
The panel's nonbinding recommendations will be brought to another panel led by Dr. Howard Koh, HHS assistant secretary of health.
HHS recommendations will then go through the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) regulatory process, said Jerry Holmberg, executive secretary for the panel.
It's up to the FDA to issue appropriate guidelines on blood safety, Mr. Holmberg said. "We can't give you a timeline" for when anything will happen.
In its written recommendations, the panel agreed that the current deferral policies for MSM donors are "suboptimal," but current research cannot support change to a specific alternative policy. "Therefore, without further evaluation, the committee recommends that the current policy … not be changed at the present time."
The panel then suggested numerous research projects to "create a road map forward," as one panelist called it.
These included suggestions to study how blood-donor questionnaires might be changed to distinguish low-risk MSM donors and heterosexuals from high-risk ones, and what would happen if donors were pre-screened with a small blood test before they donated blood for human use.
The panel also said it needed to explore what would happen in the massive worldwide distribution of U.S. blood products if the U.S. authorities changed their MSM donor standards. Many countries also ban such donations, raising questions about whether they would accept American blood donations.
Before the vote, Nathan Schaefer of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) urged the panel to end what he called the "very blunt instrument of a total lifetime ban" for gay male blood donors. There is a subset of gay and bisexual men who could be safely admitted into the donor pool, said Sean Cahill, another leader of the New York City-based GMHC.
But donor-deferral policies "are not judgments about the individual donor," said Mark Skinner, spokesman for the American Plasma Users Coalition, which represents 10 organizations for people who use life-saving blood products.
The policies are intended to reduce the risk of known and unknown infections that could be passed to blood recipients, said Mr. Skinner. The issue of emerging pathogens is real, he added. "We don't know what the next HIV will be."
In the often-impassioned public comment period, spokesmen for the AIDS Institute, the Foundation for AIDS Research and AABB, which represents American blood banks, called for a change in the MSM policy, such as shortening the deferral period for MSM donors to a year after their last homosexual experience.
"I just want to put a human face" on the issue, said Lee Storrow, a university student who said that, although he once gave blood regularly, he is now permanently deferred because he is gay and has had sex.
Richard Vogel, past president of the Hemophilia Association of New Jersey, offered a "face" of those with the blood-clotting disease.
"I'm not the man I would have been if I had not tested positive for AIDS in 1982," said Mr. Vogel, who became infected with AIDS through a blood transfusion.
In a statement released after the vote, the conservative Family Research Council praised the decision.
"This panel heard a day and a half of testimony, including the latest research on HIV risks in the blood supply, but in the end they recognized that there is no alternative screening policy that can be shown to maintain the safety of the nation's blood supply," said Peter Sprigg, FRC's senior fellow for policy studies.
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