GAITHERSBURG, Md (Reuters) - A federal advisory panel, in a
close vote, declined Thursday to support easing restrictions on
blood donations from gay men, a policy criticised as
discriminatory and outdated.
Many members of the US Food and Drug Administration panel said
they would like to see a change in the policy, which was
adopted to minimise risks of spreading the HIV virus that
causes AIDS. But the majority voted that they did not have
enough scientific evidence to back the FDA's proposed
Under FDA rules, men cannot give blood if they have had sex
with another man at least once since 1977. The panel voted 7-6
against allowing men to donate if they had not had sex with
another man in the past five years.
FDA officials said they were revisiting the policy because new
blood tests are more reliable and track HIV infection much
quicker than previous ones. Also, gay rights groups and others
have complained that the policy differs from the treatment of
other high-risk donors. Men who have had sex with a prostitute,
for instance, are "deferred" from giving blood for only one
year after their last encounter.
Further, critics say asking people whether they have had
multiple partners or unprotected sex is a better way to tell
who is most at risk for carrying HIV and would not exclude gay
men who practice safe sex or abstinence, or others who may have
experimented with gay sex years ago.
The restriction for gay men "seems very discriminatory and it
seems very arbitrary," said panel member Dr. Mark Mitchell. "I
feel very strongly it needs to be changed."
But most members said the FDA did not present enough scientific
data to convince them the change would not lead to more
HIV-positive units slipping through the extensive blood testing
and screening. The FDA usually follows its panels' advice.
"It's all an assumption. There is no evidence," said panel
chairman F. Blaine Hollinger of Baylor College of Medicine.
Safety measures have made exposure to HIV from blood donations
Calculating the impact of a five-year deferral for gay men was
difficult, said FDA medical officer Andrew Dayton. He estimated
that 62,300 men would go to blood centres to give blood if the
policy changed. Highly accurate testing likely would catch any
HIV-positive, but risks would come from workers who might
accidentally release units that were positive, Dayton said.
Still, fewer than two HIV-positive blood units per year would
slip out, Dayton estimated, but admitted his numbers "are very
iffy, and unfortunately it's all we have to go on."
Panel member Jeanne Linden said she "did not have the evidence"
to back changing restrictions on gay donations now, but she
"very much encouraged" the FDA to continue reviewing the matter
and consider changes.