Some follow-up details from Friday's HHS Committee vote:
The Committee voted 9-6 against lifting the ban. In a follow-up vote, the Committee also voted unanimously- 14-0- to declare the policy "sub-optimal" because "some potentially high-risk donations while preventing some potentially low-risk donations".
Update: Some questions have dropped in my inbox on why the Committee would voted against lifting the ban in the face of such clear scientific evidence for a revised ban. My own opinion is that many members would not support a repeal without something to put in its place, and there was no consensus on that- for example, a 1-year deferral- or a deferral based on risk. In listening to some of the hearing (h/t Good As You for the clips), the comments from Dr. Pomper (a Committee member) as I transcribed below are the best illustration of that opinion.
We do really need to reassess the question. The problem with the question that we were asked was at the present time, which I take to mean today, and the problem with making that decision today is that we really don't have an acceptable alternative in that setting. So I think we really need to do some research to into establishing what would be a safe alternative. Then, rather than changing, or removing, I would say, as a concept of change, now we have an ability to remove something but have the ability to put something in its place that would be an improvement... it's difficult for me to simply recommend removal of the status quo without being able to recommend a clear plan of how to make that better. It's not optimal today, it's not perfect today, and I wish it was, but to be safe, it's important to have that plan, at least some research, into what would be that best plan. And I think a questionnaire into the demographics that gets to the heart of the risk factors is a good place to begin.
The Committee further recommended that HHS study the issue to see if the questionnaire people are required to fill out be adjusted to identify MSM who are not high-risk (such as those who are HIV-negative and in long-term, monogamous relationships) as well as non-MSM who are currently high-risk but are not caught by the system. The Committee also called for a study of the possibility of pre-screening, another idea to enable those who are currently not allowed to donate to move them into donor status.
The reports will be submitted to the Assistant Secretary of HHS and the FDA, which will make a final decision. There's no clear timeline yet.
As I wrote on Friday, I actually view this as something of a small step forward. Screening criteria based on risk- which is how Italy, France and Spain screen donors- is what we're going for, rather than any kind of 5-year or 1-year blanket deferral, which would still exclude many gay and bisexual men living normal, healthy lives.
Or, put more simply, someone like me who is healthy, HIV-negative, and meets all of the other criteria, still could not donate under a 1-year deferral policy. Nor could 95% of the gay/bisexual men I know. Under a low-risk policy, many may be able to.
So while this archaic and misguided policy unfortunately continues, we may have made a small step forward in revising the donor criteria in a more sensible way that will improve the nation's blood supply as well as eliminate discrimination.
For those interested in more, I'll be on NPR in the Washington, DC area (WAMU 88.5) during one of this evening's tomorrow morning's newscasts, no definite time yet.
I also participated in the launch of a new podcast show- Same Sex Sunday, which focuses on LGBT issues- and talked about this, as well as Maine's Tuesday primary results and Iceland moving towards same-sex marriage equality with hosts Joe and Phil. You can listen to the interview here, or download on iTunes here.
Reading around the local news coverage on this today, I was happy to see coverage of a number of health officials expressing disappointment. San Jose Mercury News:
"I am completely disheartened that our federal government failed to lift this archaic ban," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager. "The American Red Cross and other respected organizations have long advocated that this policy is medically unnecessary. Today's decision is rooted in ignorance, not science."
"We and other blood centers are at the forefront of research in terms of transmitted infectious agents including among demographics such as men who have sex with men," said Dr. Kim Anh Nguyen, the medical director at the Blood Centers of the Pacific. "So far we have not found other emerging viruses like HIV."
Because of the ban, the Blood Centers of the Pacific estimates a loss of more than 1,000 pints of potential blood donations each year. Companies and universities, including San Jose State, will not allow organizations to solicit blood donations on their property because of their "discriminatory" practices. Moreover, blood centers from around the United States experience year-round shortages of blood, leaving the Bay Area to import 20 percent of its blood from outside the state.
"I'm disappointed because I'm afraid that student groups and other groups are going to blame the blood banks," said Nguyen. "Blood centers hope that groups that are disappointed and angered by this don't take it out on patients and continue to support blood donations."
The Bay Area's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community also has been a longtime advocate of lifting the ban, and many say the policy will continue to ostracize gay men.
"On the face of it, it just seems to be discriminatory. It's obviously targeted toward gay men," said Chris Flood, the board of directors at San Jose's Billy De Frank LGBT Community Center. "If the concern really is about people who are promiscuous giving blood, then there should be a question about people sleeping with multiple sex partners, not just gay men."
"Amongst the gay male community, often people are caught off guard that this policy is still in effect since there have been such advances in detection technology," says Nathan Schaefer, policy director for Gay Men's Health Crisis, who is speaking at the hearings.
Screening technology can now detect HIV in blood within weeks of infection. When the ban began, it took months.
"The policy reinforces negative stereotypes about gay men, assuming they are all an equal threat to the public health," Schaefer says, "and reinforces false perceptions about heterosexuals to say they don't represent a risk."
"Lots of gay men are not HIV-positive," noted Betty Hill, director of Persad, a counseling center for sexual minorities in Pittsburgh. "You have to figure they would donate in the same percentages as the population at large, if not more so."
The more that experts and stakeholders in public health communities speak out on this issue, the stronger our side will get.
Thanks again to everyone participated in submitting a public comment. Our fight continues.