Panel: Too many risks to lift ban on blood donations by gay men

Members of an advisory panel on blood safety are arguing it would be risky to lift a 1980s-era ban on blood donations by gay men.

The experts who advise the Food and Drug Administration are pushing back, as the agency reviews whether to lift the ban.

“There’s too many questions in science that aren’t answerable,” said Corey Dubin, a member of the committee and founder of an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization called Committee of Ten Thousand.

“With the science so far, it’s a leap of faith,” he said.

The group’s skepticism contrasts with a Health and Human Services Department panel, which voted nearly unanimously to ease the policy earlier this fall.

The FDA panel was not asked to take a vote, a spokeswoman for the agency said. But if they had, one source said the group would have likely said no — just like they did during their last vote on the issue in 2010.

“The committee would not have voted to lower the ban. It would have been split right down the middle,” according to a source familiar with the discussions.

The advisory panel, which includes 16 top scientists and industry executives, said during a daylong meeting Tuesday that easing the ban would add risks to the nation’s blood supply that are difficult to predict.

After nearly a full day of debate and public comment, the group recommended more research before revising the 31-year-old policy.

Momentum has been slowly shifting in the decades-old debate on whether men who have sex with men could safely donate blood, given their higher risk for HIV/AIDS.

Groups, such as the American Red Cross and the American Medical Association, have said the ban goes against science. Gay rights groups are increasingly targeting the policy, bolstered by recent victories like the military eliminating its “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the Supreme Court striking down major portions of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Consensus has also been growing within Congress, where dozens of lawmakers have voiced support for changing the policy, though talks have largely stalled in the last five years.

“This has been an excruciatingly long process,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who has been one of the leading lawmakers pushing to remove the ban. “There are a lot of big rocks to move here.”

He said the ban is discriminatory and a remnant of the 1980s “panic,” when HIV/AIDS was a little-understood disease and blood testing was far less reliable.

Quigley said he believes the policy will eventually be changed because the Obama administration will back it.

“I think that the leadership at the agency is very supportive of changing this policy, and they want to get it right,” he said.

Dubin, who has lived with HIV and hepatitis C for more than 20 years, said he would support easing the ban if the government improves its surveillance system for the blood supply.

“No matter how you stack it, there is a risk increase,” Dubin said.

Dubin said the U.S. should improve its monitoring of blood donations regardless of whether gay men are allowed to donate because of many “high-risk” individuals, such as those who have unprotected heterosexual sex, are still allowed to donate.

He said a stronger blood surveillance system would cost about $1 million a year, though it has received little backing by the agencies.

“The truth is, as far as I can see, we don’t have the backing of the administration. We don’t have full funding for surveillance. Without full funding, we aren’t going to see change,” he said.