WASHINGTON — Government health advisers expressed concerns Tuesday about lifting the nation’s 31-year-old ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, despite growing pressure from gay rights advocates, medical experts and blood banks.
The ban dates from the first years of the AIDS epidemic and was intended to protect the U.S. blood supply from exposure to the little-understood disease. But many medical groups, including the American Medical Association, say the policy is no longer supported by science, given advances in HIV testing. And gay activists say the lifetime ban is discriminatory and perpetuates negative stereotypes against homosexual men.
Despite such concerns, blood safety experts on Tuesday urged the Food and Drug Administration to exercise caution in making any changes to current policy, saying the impact on the blood supply is difficult to predict. The FDA is not required to follow the recommendations of its advisers. The agency has not set a timeline for making any changes to current donor standards.
The hesitancy voiced by FDA’s advisers is out of step with other parts of the federal government, which have been steadily moving toward reconsidering the policy.
Last month a separate panel of blood safety experts convened by Department of Health and Human Services voted 16-2 in favor of doing away with the ban on donations from gay and bisexual men. The panel recommended moving to a one-year deferral period, which would bar male donors who have had sex with men in the previous 12 months.
Article continues belowBut the FDA’s experts did not overwhelmingly embrace that proposal.
“If I look at the science I would be very wary of a one-year deferral,” said Dr. Susan Leitman. “It sounds to me like we’re talking about policy and civil rights rather than our primary duty, which is transfusion safety.”
Most members of the 22-member panel agreed that more robust screening technology is needed to analyze the national blood supply and gauge safety changes over time. But panelists said it’s difficult to predict the impact of doing away with the current donor restrictions.
“It’s going to be a guess as to what’s going to happen,” said Dr. James Allen. “And it’s going to take time before we get the data that shows us whether that was a good decision or not.”