A federal advisory panel on blood-donor policies voted Thursday to ask the government to put a new surveillance system in place as a steppingstone to permitting some gay and bisexual men to give blood.
The panel of medical professionals didn’t change the current lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM).
But the group asked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to “establish and fund” a comprehensive and nationally representative monitoring system on “transfusion-transmissible infections.”
Such a system should be in place “prior to the implementation of any change in this [MSM] deferral policy,” said the members of the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability.
“Transfusion-transmissible infections” refers to viruses and other pathogens that are conveyed via blood transfusion. The HHS committee has been focusing on HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, and a virus that causes one type of leukemia.
To keep the blood supply safe, public-health and blood-industry officials use an in-depth screening process that asks potential donors about many issues, including their foreign travel, health conditions, new tattoos, and past and current sexual behaviors.
The ban on MSM blood donations has burgeoned as a culture-war issue. The ban was put in place in 1985 after it was discovered that hemophiliacs and other blood-using populations were being infected with — and dying from — HIV/AIDS they received through blood transfusions, including those from MSM.
The current MSM policy says that any man who has had sex with a man since 1977 is permanently deferred from giving blood.
Gay-rights groups, including those associated with college campuses where blood drives are often held, say the MSM policy is discriminatory and stigmatizing: All donated blood is tested, and new tests are exceptionally good at detecting the HIV virus, these groups say. Moreover, other people who engage in high-risk behaviors are often deferred for only 12 months.
“I am perfectly healthy, but I am banned for life,” Zach Spoehr-Labutta, a gay man who is part of Banned4Life, told the HHS panel during a public-comment period on Thursday.
A change in the MSM policy is “long overdue,” added Kim Miller, a policy analyst with the HIV Medicine Association.
In contrast, Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, noted that new federal data find that MSM remain “at the center of the HIV epidemic in the United States,” and any change to the donor policy should be based on proof that it won’t add risks or costs to blood safety.
“There is no ‘right’ to donate blood,” said Mr. Sprigg. “Social justice requires that only the needs of potential blood recipients be considered at all.”
In 2010, the same HHS panel voted to uphold the lifetime ban on MSM blood donation, but they called it “suboptimal” and requested new research to guide them in changing the policy.
In Thursday’s session, several HHS panelists tried to get the group to begin discussing how to change the MSM policy — “move the ball down the field,” as one man said — but they were dissuaded by other panelists who said they should be patient and wait until final research findings are presented in 2014.