FDA's door ajar for blood ban change

  • Wednesday August 3, 2016
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FDA's door ajar for blood ban change

It's urgent that LGBTs and allies press the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to change its gay ban on blood donations. The FDA announced last week that it is accepting public comment, supported by scientific evidence, to develop options to replace time-based blood donation deferrals with blood donation guidelines based on individual risk. This move is long overdue and we support the FDA's decision to finally solicit evidence-based documentation " which is plentiful.

The FDA has been dithering on changing its policy for years. As it stands now, only blood donations from gay and bisexual men who have been abstinent for one year can be accepted. It's not as strict as the previous ban, which prohibited blood donations from men who've had sex with men even once since 1977. But as we noted last December, even this one-year prohibition continues to discriminate against and stigmatize gay and bi men. Decades of scientific research have advanced our understanding of HIV transmission. When the AIDS epidemic was raging, there were no accurate tests and blood centers didn't screen donations. Now blood donations can be tested more accurately for many diseases. After the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, sexually active gay and bi men were turned away from Florida blood banks under the FDA's current policy, which apparently renewed the effort of activists and others to call for changes, and for the FDA to take notice.

Equality California, the statewide LGBT rights group, has made changing the federal blood donor policy a priority. It started the Every Drop Counts initiative, which has mobilized the LGBT community and its allies to send thousands of emails and letters to the FDA asking for an end to the ban. EQCA also sponsored a resolution in 2014, authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), and another one in 2015 by Assemblymen Bloom, Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), and Evan Low (D-Campbell) calling on the FDA to end policies based on fear and ignorance and replace them with rules based on current science and understanding of HIV. Low is a gay man who has consistently challenged the FDA's policies since he was elected to the Assembly.

The FDA's request for comments supported by scientific evidence, such as data from research, is a critical new development. It means that the agency is giving serious consideration to revising its policies. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who is the only out U.S. senator, has been active at the federal level on this issue. She also praised the public comment announcement. "It is encouraging that the FDA is taking another step forward to develop better blood donor policies that are grounded in science, don't unfairly single out one group of individuals, and allow all healthy Americans to donate," she said in a statement. "I will continue to push for policies that secure our nation's blood supply in a scientifically sound manner based on individual risk."

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is another LGBT organization that has been critical of the FDA ban. In a statement, it also referenced the Orlando tragedy, saying that the attention garnered by the rejection of gay and bi blood donors put a human face on the discriminatory policy. "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 agency stated. "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."

We encourage LGBT and allied doctors, researchers, and health advocates to submit public comment to the FDA. The comment period is open until November 25 and statements can be made electronically by following the instructions at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/07/28/2016-17804/blood-donor-deferral-policy-for-reducing-the-risk-of-human-immunodeficiency-virus-transmission-by. The FDA has taken three decades to open this door to change and we must prevent it from shutting.