The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability voted 9 to 6 on June 11 to recommend that the FDA maintain its current policy.

Though the committee voted to recommend against changing the current policy, the committee did recommend, among other actions, that quarantine release errors should be investigated. Depending on the results of such an investigation, this could lead to a future recommendation to reduce or eliminate the “deferral” of gay men and other men who have sex with men desiring to donate blood.

While the increase the blood supply could receive by lifting the indefinite deferral was noted as “modest at best,” Dr. Frederick Axelrod, CEO of LifeStream, noted that there are other concerns with not changing the current policy at all. Referring to college campuses and others canceling blood drives to express sympathy for and solidarity with the gay community, Axelrod said, “these issues … are coming up more frequently and the vocal nature of it is getting louder and louder.” Axelrod warned that if the policy is not changed “there could be an increased voice that’s going to push harder as it relates to this and then it’s going to affect the amount of blood that we can collect and then it’ll affect patients in a different way — not with an infectious disease, but not having enough blood and going back to shortages.”

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, an anti-gay organization that has been accused of lobbying Congress in opposition of a resolution that would denounce Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill, spoke at the meeting in favor of maintaining the current policy. Despite his organization’s anti-gay stance, his statements to the committee contained no blatantly homophobic language. Also speaking at the meeting were Nathan Schaefer and Sean Cahill of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as well as several HIV/AIDS organizations.

Schaefer made clear that his organization does not “necessarily think that anyone opposed to changing the current policy is motivated by homophobia.” He also described disparities in treatment. Schaefer gave the example that though any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 can never give blood, a man who has had sex with a known HIV+ woman more than 365 days ago can give blood.

HHS apparently kept no record of how members voted on the issue. A recording of the meeting is available on the department’s website, but due to low video quality and a camera shot that doesn’t include all members, not all votes are known. One vote in support of the current policy was cast by Anne Marie Finley, Vice President of Government Relations at Celgene Corporation, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporations.

The American Red Cross, the nation’s largest blood supplier, released a statement on the vote, which read, “The American Red Cross is disappointed with the decision. … While the Red Cross is obligated by law to follow the guidelines set forth by the FDA, we also strongly support the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among donors who engage in similar risk activities.”

Tyler DeVere

Tyler DeVere is a former editorial intern for QNotes.