The US Food and Drug Administration has overturned its 30-year ban on blood donations by gay men, saying they can now donate 12 months after their last sexual contact with another man.
The FDA said its decision to reverse the policy was based on an examination of the latest science which shows that an indefinite ban is not necessary to prevent transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"Ultimately, the 12-month deferral window is supported by the best available scientific evidence, at this point in time, relevant to the U.S. population," Dr. Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA's biologics division, said in a statement.
The move brings the United States in line with countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand which also have 12-month deferment periods.
Many gay rights advocates derided the move, saying the new rule still effectively bars gay men from donating.
Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), an advocacy group and health clinic formed in New York in response to the AIDS epidemic, told VICE News last year, when the policy change was first proposed publicly, that the new policy would reinforce an "outdated stereotype" that HIV is a gay disease and that it could lead to fear, stigma, and discrimination.
"Today, the FDA finally announced that gay and bisexual men may finally be allowed to donate blood — but only if they are celibate for one year, regardless of their risk for HIV," the group said in a statement today, noting that the new policy does not require a year of celibacy for heterosexual blood donors. "Some may believe this is a step forward, but in reality, requiring celibacy for a year is a de facto lifetime ban."
For years groups like GMHC and other advocates have pushed the FDA to change its policy to one that deals with donors on an individual basis to assess risky behaviors, regardless of whether they are gay or straight.
The outgoing policy has been in place since 1977 and disqualified any man who has had sex with another man. An estimated 29,800 men who have sex with other men — as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control — are currently living with the disease, part of the more than 1.2 million total Americans who are HIV positive.
Harvard Law School bioethics and the law professor I. Glenn Cohen told VICE News last year that while he thought the FDA's policy change is a good first step, it does not go far enough. According to Cohen, the reality is that "most gay men will have had sex once in the past year."
"People who experimented in college or something like that, they can donate blood, but any sexually active gay man is categorically rejected, even if he's been tested. And all these blood samples get tested no matter what," Cohen explained.
The FDA said it has worked with other government agencies and considered input from outside advisory bodies, and has "carefully examined the most recent available scientific evidence to support the current policy revision."
Additionally, the agency said people with haemophilia and related blood clotting disorders will continue to be banned from donating blood due to potential harm they could suffer from large needles. Previously they were banned due to an increased risk of HIV transmission.
The agency said it has put in place a safety monitoring system for the blood supply which it expects to provide "critical information" to help inform future FDA blood donor policies.
The FDA said its policies have helped reduce HIV transmission rates from blood transfusions from 1 in 2,500 to 1 in 1.47 million.
The agency first proposed the changes in May, and received some 700 public comments, half of which recommended keeping the ban in place.