The FDA (Finally) Opens the Door to a More Enlightened Blood Donation Policy

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August 2, 2016

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced it is soliciting public comments on alternatives to the current policy preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood unless they refrain from sex with men for a full year.

Lambda Legal is optimistic this means the FDA is finally taking seriously the proposal to implement shorter deferral periods and the individualized risk assessment that Lambda Legal and other advocates have been urging for years. We look forward to continuing a dialogue with the FDA to develop a nondiscriminatory blood donation policy that will maintain and potentially increase the safety of the blood supply.

It seems a shame that it apparently took the tragedy in Orlando—and the subsequent rejection of gay and bisexual men as blood donors at local blood collection centers—to motivate additional action on the blood donation policy, but we are pleased that the FDA is finally willing to entertain implementing a policy that is not blatantly discriminatory.

Since shortly after the MSM (men who have sex with men) blood donation ban was put in place, Lambda Legal has been advocating for its refinement—and since at least 2010, those refinements have included a shorter deferral period and some form of individualized risk assessment. 

The FDA has finally opened the door to this sensible change—let’s make sure they don’t take too long to walk through it.

As the science has advanced, we have refined our position. By 2014, Lambda Legal was advocating that the blanket lifetime ban for MSM should be replaced with a policy that anyone—gay, straight, bisexual, male, female, gender fluid, cisgender or transgender—who has engaged in an activity with a particular threshold of risk (for example, condom-less receptive anal sex) should be subject to a deferral period in line with the “window period” for detecting bloodborne pathogens through post-donation testing. Given the accuracy of current testing technologies, this would result in at-most a 2-month deferral period and maintain or increase the safety of the blood supply. If the FDA is serious about moving toward a nondiscriminatory policy firmly rooted in the science, it will seriously consider this proposal.

And we can’t let the FDA drag its feet on this.

We have waited far too long for this policy to be fixed. We know how HIV is—and is not—transmitted, we know the degree of risk presented by different types of activities and we know how long it takes before tests are able to detect it in a person’s blood. The only thing that should be required once the FDA gets on board with an individualized risk assessment is the development and testing of a questionnaire that will provide an accurate picture of the potential donor’s risk activities over the prior two months. 

Equipped with that information from potential donors, the FDA will at long last be able to move the United States to a blood donation policy that is extremely protective and does not discriminate against gay and bisexual men—or any other group with a higher prevalence of HIV.

The FDA has finally opened the door to this sensible change—let’s make sure they don’t take too long to walk through it.