PhotoFor 30 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating blood. The policy was instituted in response to the HIV-AIDS crisis, but critics have long pointed out that the virus that causes AIDS can be spread through a number of avenues and have said that it is not fair to exclude men who have sex with other men.

The new policy provides that men who have not had sex with another man for 12 months will be permitted to donate blood.  These updated recommendations "better align the deferral period" for gay men with other men and women at increased risk for HIV infection – such as those who had a recent blood transfusion or those who have been accidentally exposed to the blood of another individual. 

The FDA was careful to note that the new policy, like the old one, applies to men who have had sex with one or more other men, something that can occur among men who consider themselves heterosexual. 

“The FDA’s responsibility is to maintain a high level of blood product safety for people whose lives depend on it,” said the FDA’s Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, M.D. “We have taken great care to ensure this policy revision is backed by sound science and continues to protect our blood supply.”

Critics still aren't happy, though. Kelsey Louie, CEO of the advocacy group Gay Men's Health Crisis, said the new policy perpetuates "the stereotype that all gay and bisexual men are inherently dangerous."

"The FDA's 12-month deferral plan would still require gay and bisexual men to be celibate for a full year before they are allowed to donate blood, regardless of marital status and safe-sex practices. Heterosexuals are given no such restrictions, even if their sexual behavior places them at high risk for HIV," Louie said.

"Best available science" 

Using the approach of following the best available science together with use of donor education materials, specific deferral questions and advances in HIV donor testing has helped the FDA reduce the HIV transmission rates from blood transfusion from 1 in 2,500 to 1 in 1.47 million, the agency said in a statement announcing the change.

“In reviewing our policies to help reduce the risk of HIV transmission through blood products, we rigorously examined several alternative options, including individual risk assessment,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “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. We will continue to actively conduct research in this area and further revise our policies as new data emerge.”

Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, currently have 12-month deferrals for men who have had sex with other men.

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