August 3, 2012 at 10:47 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Countries relax restrictions on gay blood donors

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius speaks at the International AIDS Conference. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Is the United States any closer to repealing the lifetime ban on gay blood donors?

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability in 2010 categorized the current policy that has been in place since 1985 as “suboptimal” because it allows some potentially high-risk donors to give blood while excluding other lower-risk groups. Although the committee did not recommend a specific policy change, it did call for additional research on efforts to better screen potential donors and gauge their potential risk to the blood supply if they were able to donate.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley in June applauded HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ support of a pilot study designed to help the agency with further assessments of the lifetime deferral. Their letter also outlined specific recommendations, including the collection of information from prospective donors on whether they are in a monogamous relationship or practice safer-sex.

“We’ve been working on this a long time and I applaud Secretary Sebelius for taking this important step toward ending the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood, and instead relying on the science of today not the myths of 20 years ago,” wrote Kerry in a letter onto which Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.,) Carl Levin (D-Mich.,) Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.,) Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.,) Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii,) Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.,) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) signed. “We’ll at last have an informed evaluation of the final roadblocks to ending a ban against healthy, responsible Americans donating blood.”

Several countries in recent years have modified their existing bans on gay blood donors or eliminated them altogether.

The U.K. Department of Health announced last September that men who have not had sex with another man in 12 months are able to donate blood in England, Scotland and Wales. Australia has a similar policy, while South Africa allows MSM donors who have not had sexual contact with another man in six months. Gay and bisexual New Zealand men who have not had sex with another man in five years are able to donate blood.

Chilean health officials in May announced that a potential donor’s sexual orientation cannot specifically exclude them from donating blood. The new regulation is expected to take effect in the coming weeks; Colombia, Romania and Russia have already adopted similar rules.

Italy and Spain screen both heterosexual and gay potential blood donors based on specific behaviors that include the number of sexual partners they have had and whether they engage in sex work.

“We’re hopeful that is what HHS will consider with this pilot,” said Nathan Schaefer, director of public policy at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City. “We really look to those examples as ideally what we’d like to see.”

The HHS study has an 18 to 36 month timeline. Schaefer, who gave a presentation on gay-specific blood donor bans and deferrals last week during the International AIDS Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, conceded it remains unclear when the Food and Drug Administration, which is within HHS, will ultimately announce its decision on the ban.

“The rest of the world is really looking to the U.S. in terms of what we’ll do,” he said.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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