The American Medical Association voted on Tuesday to recommend that men who have sex with men be allowed to donate blood, which is in direct opposition to the Food and Drug Administration's lifetime ban.
"The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science," AMA Board Member Dr. William Kobler said in a press release. "This new policy urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone."
The FDA has banned blood donations from homosexual men and men who have sex with men since 1983. The agency cites higher risk for HIV, hepatitis B and other infections as the reason behind the policy.
In 2006, there was an attempt to get the ban overturned by the Red Cross, the international blood association AABB and America's Blood Centers, but the FDA announced in 2009 it would keep the policies in place until there was evidence that allowing these donations wouldn't provide a "significant and preventable" risk to blood recipients.
The issue was revisited in 2010 when 18 senators wrote a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg to let men who have sex with men donate blood. The FDA said at that time that current science and data did not provide evidence for a policy reversal.
While men who have sex with men only make up 2 percent of the population, they make up 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S., the FDA reported. About 77 percent of diagnosed HIV infections among men can be traced to male-to-male sexual contact.
The FDA points out that other people who have increased risk of HIV infection including intravenous drug abusers, people who have received transplants from animal organs or tissue, people who have sex in exchange for money or drugs and people who have traveled to or lived abroad in certain countries are also excluded.
While the HIV test used to screen blood is pretty accurate, there is still a very slight risk of HIV transmission in about one out of 2 million units of blood. A "window period" of 11 days exists early after infection when a person can test negative, but still have the infection.
Dr. Richard Benjamin, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross,that men having sex with men is actually not a common reason for why people are blocked from donating blood.
"It's actually a very small reason for deferrals," Benjamin said. "Maybe about one in 3,000 coming to our door are turned away (for having sex with a man), possibly because most gay men know about the deferral and don't come into our doors."
Still, he added that he thinks the policies are not fair, especially since a woman who has had sex with a man who she knew had HIV only has a 12-month deferral period. Many other countries have dropped the ban as well and amended their policy. For example, in the United Kingdom, men who have had sex with men can donate blood as long as they have not had any sexual contact with a man for 12 months.
The AMA also supports use of "rational, scientifically-based deferral periods" that are used for all blood donors, not a specific group.
A 2010 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that if the ban was removed, 219,200 more pints of blood would be donated each year. If a 12-month ban was instituted, there would still be 89,716 more pints donated annually.