Ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men ease in the U.S.

Federal health officials in the U.S. are lifting a 32-year-old lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, but major restrictions will continue to limit who can donate.

Gay rights activists said the new policy is a step in the right direction

Gay rights activists said the new policy is a step in the right direction 1:28

Federal health officials in the U.S. are lifting a 32-year-old lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, but major restrictions will continue to limit who can donate.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday it will replace the blanket ban with a new policy barring donations from men who have had sex with a man in the previous year. While the one-year-ban has been criticized by activists it matches policies in other countries, including Australia, Japan and the U.K.

Men who have sex with men must be celibate for five years before giving blood in Canada. On its website, Canadian Blood Services says it believes there's enough evidence to support a one-year deferral period. In early 2016, the agency plans to submit a proposal to Health Canada to reduce the deferral period.

Dr. Mindy Goldman of Canadian Blood Services said HIV can usually be detected in blood within a month of sexual contact. But given the potential for unique circumstances, the current deferral period is cautious.

"Our highest priority is the safety of the blood," Goldman said.

A gay rights researcher said the new policy is a "step in the right direction," but doesn't go far enough.

"I think it's time for the United States and particularly for Canada to do the right thing and end any ban or deferral completely," said Kristopher Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

"The problem is behaviours that put a person at risk for HIV rather than their identity."

Monday's policy shift in the U.S. was first proposed in late 2014 and follows years of lobbying by medical groups and gay rights organizations, who said the previous ban was outdated and perpetuated negative stereotypes.

Dr. Peter Marks of the FDA said the change is "backed by sound scientific evidence" and will "continue to protect our blood supply."

The FDA considered eliminating all restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, but concluded that would increase the transmission of HIV through the blood supply by 400 per cent.

"An increase of that magnitude is not acceptable," Marks told reporters.

All U.S. blood donations are screened for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But there is a roughly 10-day window between initial infection and when the virus can be detected in the bloodstream. The American Red Cross estimates the risk of getting an HIV-positive blood donation is 1 in 1.5 million for U.S. patients. About 15.7 million blood donations are collected in the U.S. each year.

In 2006 the Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America's Blood Centers called the ban "medically and scientifically unwarranted."

The FDA concluded that moving to a one-year abstinence requirement would not change the safety of the U.S. blood supply, based on data from Australia and other sources.

On the current blood donor questionnaire, men are asked if they have ever had sex with another man since 1977— the start of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Potential donors who answer positively are barred from donating blood. The new questionnaire, as outlined by the FDA, would ask men if they have had sex with another man in the last 12 months.

With files from CBC's Vik Adhopia

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