The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) will re-examine the blanket blood donation ban on men who have sex with other men (MSM), it has emerged.
Noting that current policy is “sub-optimal,” HHS said in a question-and-answer report requested by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) that the Blood, Organ, and Tissue Safety Working Group will assess four final areas of study that need to be evaluated before a change in the policy.
The HHS study will seek to determine:
- how the risk of blood transmissible diseases in the current donor population relate to risk factors in donors;
- the root cause of Quarantine Release Errors (QRE), the accidental release of blood not cleared for use;
- if potential donors correctly understand the current questionnaire and if men who have sex with men (MSM) would comply with modified deferral criteria; AND
- if alternative screening strategy (e.g. pre- and/or post qualifying donation infectious disease testing) for MSM (and potentially other high-risk donors) would assure blood safety while enabling collection of data that could demonstrate safe blood collection from a subset of MSM or other currently deferred donors.
Any man that has had sex with another man since 1977, no matter how infrequently or safely, is permanently barred from donating under the current policy.
The Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability for HHS voted last year to keep the ban in effect, saying that there was insufficient data to support revising the policy. However, the committee also gave license for research into assessing whether “low-risk” men who have sex with other men might be able to give blood.
In the question and answer document, HHS refrains from explicitly stating whether the donation ban will end following this new research, saying instead, “When these studies are complete, the Department is committed to a full evidence-based evaluation of the policy. If the data indicate that a change is possible while protecting the blood supply, we will consider a change to the policy.”
Senator John Kerry praised HHS for its latest steps toward reassessing the ban, saying, “We’ve been working on this a long time in a serious way and I’m glad Secretary Sebelius responded with concrete steps to finally remove this policy from the books.” He added, “HHS is doing their due-diligence and we plan to stay focused on the end game – a safe blood supply and an end to this discriminatory ban.”
Representative Mike Quigley, who has also lobbied for a change in policy, is quoted as saying, “This announcement by HHS means we’re moving in the direction of finally ending this antiquated and discriminatory policy. Senator Kerry and I will continue to push for a behavior-based screening process both in the name of fairness and a safer blood supply.”
Opponents say the blanket ban has been kept in place due to institutionalized homophobia and antiquated notions about HIV risk among gay men, and as such a move toward evidence-based recommendations has been welcomed.