The announcement Tuesday by the federal government to recommend ending a decades-old policy preventing gay men from donating blood was met with enthusiasm – mostly.
Medical professionals, activists and city leaders in San Francisco were encouraged by the development, but blasted a restriction that they said nearly makes the effort pointless.
Next year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to recommend lifting the ban while requiring that men who have sex with men wait a year after their last sexual contact to donate blood.
Supervisor Scott Wiener last summer passed a nonbinding resolution at the Board of Supervisors urging the lifetime ban to be lifted, and on Tuesday he said the potential policy change is simply “a modest step” toward achieving that goal.
“The revised policy which continues to ban gay and bisexual men from donating blood if they – God forbid – had sex in the last year continues to discriminate and really has no basis in public health,” Wiener said.
He questioned why a yearlong ban would still be imposed when modern HIV testing can detect the virus within several weeks of infection.
“You can test blood directly for the virus and if it's negative be confident that as of two weeks ago the person was negative,” Wiener said.
FDA spokeswoman Tara Goodin said the yearlong deferral period was decided after the agency looked at a variety of data on health and disease patterns.
“Compelling scientific evidence is not available at this time to support a change to a deferral period [of] less than one year while still ensuring the safety of the blood supply,” Goodin wrote in an email to The San Francisco Examiner.
Dr. Tomas Aragon, San Francisco's health officer, said the potential policy change would be an improvement but that requiring anyone to abstain from sex for a year before donating blood is unrealistic.
“Practically speaking, it sounds like there's still a ban,” Aragon said.
The director of the UC San Francisco AIDS Research Institute, Dr. Paul Volberding, agreed that a year is too long, but the recommendation is nevertheless “a strong move in the right direction” for a policy that stemmed from the early 1980s when not much was known about HIV and AIDS.
“This was a policy that really reminded us of the darker period of the epidemic when we really didn't know very much,” Volberding said. “We'd like to believe that our policies are based on evidence. This was one of those outliers.”
Tom Temprano, co-president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, said he knows all too well how it feels to not be allowed to donate blood. At 16, Temprano had recently come out as gay when he tried to donate at his high school's blood drive in Ventura.
“I really wanted to participate…and was so shocked and really deeply hurt and embarrassed…to be told by a medical professional that my blood, and my wanting to donate, was unacceptable and there was something wrong with it,” Temprano said.
Twelve years later, Temprano said he still has yet to donate blood in his life.
“I'm someone who would gladly be donating blood regularly,” he said. “I'm sure there are tens of thousands of men, if not millions…who don't donate blood and otherwise would be.”
Experts expect that the policy will continue to change. Advancements in technology that allow doctors to detect HIV in patients within weeks of infection will likely eventually lead to reducing or eliminating the one-year deferral period, Volberding said.
“Over time the policy can move in an even more rational direction,” he said.