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FDA recommends end to gay blood ban -- kind of

Donors give blood at a record attempt for blood donations in Rutland, Vt., Dec. 20, 2011.
Donors give blood at a record attempt for blood donations in Rutland, Vt., Dec. 20, 2011.

For the first time in 31 years, gay and bisexual men will soon be able to donate blood -- with some major strings attached.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Tuesday it would recommend lifting its decades-old policy barring blood donations from men who’ve had sex with other men -- even once -- since 1977. That decision will end one of the last remaining federal bans on gay Americans imposed at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

In its place will be a one-year deferral policy that will allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood as long as they let a year pass without having sex with another man. More than 20 countries have replaced similar lifetime bans with deferral periods that vary in length from six months to five years.

But a number of gay rights advocates in the U.S. argue that even the one-year deferral period amounts to unnecessary discrimination.

“Some may believe this is a step forward, but in reality, requiring celibacy for a year is a de facto lifetime ban,” said the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) is a statement. “Since the first days of epidemic, GMHC has witnessed first-hand how fear, stigma, and discrimination have fueled the spread of HIV. By implementing this policy, the FDA will continue to fan the flames of the outdated stereotype that HIV is only a ‘gay disease.’”

Related: Decades-old ban on blood donations from gay men revisited

The FDA has prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating blood since 1983, when little was known about HIV/AIDS other than the fact that it was decimating large swaths of the gay population. To this day, statistically speaking, men who have sex with other men remain the population most profoundly affected by HIV in the U.S. -- something the FDA has often pointed to in the past as justification for keeping its lifetime ban in place.

Since 1983, however, detection and prevention techniques have come a long way, making the FDA’s policy scientifically unwarranted, medical experts argue. Blood banks in the U.S. currently screen every donor sample using a process known as Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT), which can pick up HIV in a unit of blood as soon as nine days after the donor was infected. Forcing gay and bisexual blood donors to way a year, therefore, is still a very cautious policy.

The American Medical Association, American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers, American Association of Blood Banks (AABB), and the American Plasma Users Coalition have all backed an end to the FDA’s lifetime ban. Earlier this year, an advisory panel for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also recommended the policy be changed to a one-year deferral for gay and bisexual men.