Easing of Gay Blood Ban rejected

Friday, September 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GAITHERSBURG, Md. (AP) — The government is considering easing the ban on gay male blood donors — but its scientific advisers say don't do it yet, citing lack of evidence about how it might affect the AIDS risk in the nation's blood supply.

All men who seek to donate blood are asked if they have had sex, even once, with another man since 1977. Those who say they have are permanently banned from donating blood.

Critics say that policy, in effect since 1985, is outdated because better testing can now detect virtually all blood infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — and there's an increasingly urgent need for more blood donors. Also, the gay community contends the policy is discriminatory, forbidding donations by thousands of men whose HIV tests show they're healthy.

So the Food and Drug Administration asked its scientific advisers Thursday whether it should change the rule to ban only men who had sex with another man within the past five years.

But the advisers voted 7-6 that there was not enough evidence that it's safe to make that change. The FDA is not bound by its advisers' decisions but typically follows them.

The issue has split the blood industry, with half of the nation's blood banks supporting easing the policy while the American Red Cross, representing the other half, opposes any change.

Easing the ban would result in an estimated 62,300 gay men — or men who had experimented with homosexual activity only once — seeking to donate blood, FDA medical officer Dr. Andrew Dayton said. Out of that group, less than two units of HIV-infected units of blood might get into the blood supply undetected, he said.

The current ban on gay male donors ``seems very discriminatory,'' said Dr. Mark Mitchell, a Connecticut physician on the FDA advisory panel. ``I feel very strongly that it needs to be changed.''

But he was outvoted by fellow panelists who complained that the FDA's estimates were based on mathematical models — nobody knows exactly how many homosexual men want to donate and how many of that subset have HIV.

``I encourage the FDA to continue to look at possible options for how this can be changed in a safe fashion,'' said Dr. Jeanne Linden of the New York State Department of Health.

All donated blood undergoes strict testing for the AIDS virus and other blood-borne diseases.

Of the nation's 12 million units of donated blood, about 10 HIV-infected units slip through each year, causing about two to three HIV infections a year, said Dr. Michael Busch of the University of California, San Francisco.

But new genetic tests adopted by blood banks last year have many scientists expecting to virtually eliminate even those rare cases.

Still, as an extra precaution, the FDA also requires blood banks to question potential donors about their risks for HIV and other diseases and refuse the blood of high-risk people. The hope is people will not lie, although studies show many do.

Barred for life from donating are gay men, intravenous drug users and prostitutes. Other people are forbidden to donate blood for a year after certain risky behaviors, such as having sex once with a prostitute.

An estimated 8 percent of gay men have HIV. But many blood banks are asking why they must turn away thousands of potentially healthy men.

Easing the ban ``should have no detrimental effect on ... the safety of the blood supply,'' said Dr. Louis Katz of the American Association of Blood Banks.

It's also a matter of fairness, said Dr. A. Smith of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. ``Like risks should be treated alike,'' she said, asking why women who have unprotected sex with multiple men — another big HIV risk — aren't barred from donating.

But the Red Cross argued that changing the policy could require HIV tests to catch an additional 1,200 infected units of blood, a big strain on the system.

``We cannot change our procedures in a way that would result in increased numbers of infectious donation in our blood supply,'' said Dr. Rebecca Haley, the Red Cross's chief medical officer.

The debate comes amid concern about blood shortages. Only 8 million Americans donate blood, just 5 percent of currently eligible donors. Blood donations are decreasing about 1 percent a year, while demand for blood is increasing by 1 percent a year. Already, some cities routinely experience blood shortages during holidays and the summer.