- - Monday, December 15, 2014

Eighty members of Congress have asked for a commitment from the Obama administration to end a ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men by the end of the year.

The letter, sent Monday to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, also requests that she abandon a suggested one-year deferral policy for men who have sex with men and instead adopt a risk-based policy for MSM.

“We urge you to implement a risk-based blood donation policy for MSM rather than simply another arbitrary time-based deferral,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, and 79 colleagues said in their letter.

A year ago, the letter noted, former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told Congress that the MSM blood donation policy would be changed by December 2014.

“Will you commit to replacing the current lifetime deferral policy by the end of 2014?” Ms. Warren and her colleagues wrote.

A response from HHS wasn’t immediately available.

Currently, men who have sex with a man, even once, since 1977 are permanently deferred from giving blood.

This policy was established in the early 1980s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands of people, including young hemophiliacs, sickened and died from HIV-tainted blood.

Today, many countries have dropped the lifetime ban on donations from MSM but require a lengthy one-year or five-year period of sexual abstinence for those donors.

In recent federal advisory meetings, experts with HHS and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) heard about research aimed at helping them craft a new donor policy for MSM.

The HHS panel voted 16-2 for a one-year deferral for MSM. But the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee, which met a few weeks later, declined to vote on the issue at all.

At both meetings, advocates for blood-using organizations urged experts to make blood safety the paramount concern.

Any change to the MSM policy must be accompanied by a national blood-monitoring system to catch infections by known pathogens, like HIV and hepatitis, as well as unknown or emerging infections, said the American Plasma Users Coalition and groups representing people with hemophilia, anemia and immune deficiencies.

The Warren letter emphasized protection of the nation’s blood supply but objected to tying the MSM policy change to the creation of a monitoring system that has been recommended since 2006.

“We are troubled that such a [monitoring] system has suddenly become a prerequisite to change the blood donation policy for MSM,” said the letter.

“Any additional delays in publicly addressing how HHS plans to change the deferral policy for MSM and implement a surveillance system are unacceptable,” said the letter, which was signed by members of the Senate and the House.

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