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LGBT advocates say FDA gay blood donor policy revision is long overdue, but ‘not enough’

The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it would replace its lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men that has been in effect since 1983 with a one-year deferral policy.

Gay and bisexual men may now donate blood if they haven’t had sexual relations with other men for a year.

The FDA said in a statement that it will “recommend a change to the blood donor deferral period for men who have sex with men from indefinite deferral to one year since the last sexual contact.”

The agency implemented the ban in 1983, in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The Red Cross, responding to Tuesday’s announcement, called the lifetime ban “unwarranted” and supported the FDA’s position to move to a one-year deferral. The American Medical Association had said the FDA’s ban was “discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

Although there had been resistance to easing restrictions on gay blood donations, the FDA said the policy change came about after it had “carefully examined and considered the available scientific evidence.”

That evidence includes the fact that tests to detect HIV have greatly improved over the decades and that screenings can detect the virus in about 10 days. Or, how Dr. Barry Zingman told Men’s Health, “It takes a week or two to diagnose HIV, not a lifetime.”

The FDA will issue a draft guidance for the change in 2015, followed by an opportunity for public comment.

But LGBT advocates have already spoken up, saying that while the announcement was long overdue, it represents only a modest step toward a completely non-discriminatory law.

“Ultimately, it’s not enough,” said Ryan James Yezak, founder of the National Gay Blood Drive. “The reason people are so frustrated is that this is the announcement after 31 years, and this is all that’s being done.”

“But I think the frustration is reactionary,” Yezak said, adding that it was important to note that the process is incredibly complicated and time-consuming.

“When you get into it and see exactly how this process works, we’re satisfied for the moment,” he said.

Yezak, along with other advocates, have long argued that these half measures perpetuate the stigma of the gay man as a risk to the blood supply.

“Science supports something further, and those who have been paying attention to this for a while know that a time-based deferral should be based on risk and applied to everyone who is sexually active, not just gay and bisexual men.”

I. Glenn Cohen, a law professor at Harvard University, who specializes in medical ethics, said to look to our Western peers for guidance.

“I think the best evidence on this question is the experience of our peer countries and none have seen increase of infection in blood supply after changing their policies from a lifetime ban,” he said. “On the downside, most sexually active gay men have had sex with a man in the last year, so the new guidelines are still to conservative, but it’s still a step in the right direction.”

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