Red Cross Supports Ban on Homosexual Blood Donors

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The American Red Cross, the nation's largest supplier of blood components, supports the current ban on blood donation by men who have engaged in homosexual sex during the past 24 years.

In a 7-6 vote, a Food and Drug Administration panel Thursday voted to maintain a ban on blood donations from homosexual men, even though some members of an FDA special advisory panel called the restrictions discriminatory and outdated.

The policy - which says men cannot give blood if they've had sex with another man at any time since 1977 - is intended to minimize the risk of spreading HIV and AIDS.

Proposed changes would have allowed men to donate blood if they hadn't had sex with another man in the past five years. Those in favor of changing the policy said new blood tests are better able to detect HIV infection.

But a majority of the panel said there's not enough scientific data to warrant a change in blood-donor policy.

Dr. Rebecca Haley, interim chief medical officer for the American Red Cross, told the committee the Red Cross did not support changing the ban.

"If the Public Health Service could assure us that introducing previously deferred donors into the pool could be accommodated without increasing risk, the American Red Cross would support appropriate actions to do so," she said in a statement provided to CNSNews.com.

"The safety of the blood supply - and the patients we ultimately serve - must be our number one priority. This is a public health issue, not a social policy issue," she said.

The Red Cross is the country's largest supplier of blood components, serving more than 3,000 hospitals nationwide. Last year, the Red Cross collected 6 million units of blood from 4.5 million people. Every day, 22,000 donors visit one of 400 Red Cross blood donation sites, Red Cross figures show.

FDA medical officer Dr. Andrew Dayton estimated there are 62,300 homosexual men who want to donate blood but are prohibited from doing so by the current law. Considering the known prevalence of HIV infection in this population, changing to a five-year deferral policy could potentially introduce 1,246 units of HIV-positive blood into the system to be screened. Of this, two units of HIV-infected blood could get into the nation's blood supply, he said.

Introducing theoretically over a thousand HIV-positive units of blood into the system prior to testing would be expected to raise risk, Haley said.

"Even considering our layers of safety - from the blood donor record questions to the current tests that screen HIV-positive units out of the blood supply - modifying the [male homosexual]-deferral criterion to five years would result in a small but measurable increase in the possibility that an infectious blood unit might be released," she said.

The tests routinely performed on all donated blood to detect HIV and other viruses prevent all but about 10 HIV-infected units from entering the blood supply each year, one expert said. The infected blood that defies the testing causes two to three HIV infections a year, he said.

Dr. Adrienne Smith of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, said the current donor ban stigmatizes homosexual men. It is unfair that donors who disclose having engaged in risky heterosexual sexual behavior are only deferred for a year while homosexual men are deferred for a lifetime.

But Dr. Jay Epstein, director of the FDA's Office of Blood Research and Review, said data clearly shows that men who engage in high-risk homosexual behavior are much more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to become infected with HIV.