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End of discriminatory blood ban could help save lives

It is a longstanding federal regulation that many in the gay community say stigmatizes and discriminates against them
FDA considers lifting ban on blood donations from gay men 03:40

A long standing federal regulation that many in the gay community say stigmatizes and discriminates against them could change. Members of the gay community, along with many others in the medical field, will gather in Washington on Tuesday to find out if the FDA panel will support the measure, reports CBS News correspondent Julianna Goldman.

Jason Cianciotto remembers sitting across from a nurse at his high school's blood drive when she asked him a surprising question.

"She said to me, 'Have you ever had sex with a man since 1977?' At the time I was closeted, I was scared of family rejection; I didn't understand why she was asking me that question," Cianciotto said.

His answer disqualified him from being a donor then and it still holds today, the result of a rule put in place at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis that bans men who have had sex with other men from donating blood.

When the rule was imposed in 1983, regulators wanted to prevent HIV from infecting the nation's blood supply. At the time the disease was known as "gay-related immune deficiency." And it was believed that gay and bisexual men had a higher risk of contracting the virus and other infections such as Hepatitis B.

But now, with scientific advances in the field of blood testing, a number of medical groups and gay rights activists say the ban is discriminatory and are pushing for the Food and Drug Administration to lift it.

One of those groups is the Gay Men's Health Crisis, where Cianciotto is now the director of public policy.

"This change would help end the stigma that is driving the HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men in this country by causing shame and fear and lack of a scientific understanding of what causes HIV transmission and what people can do regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity to protect themselves," Cianciotto said.

One of the recommendations the FDA will consider comes from an advisory panel for the Department of Health and Human Services. Last month, it said blood safety could still be maintained under a revised policy and recommended allowing men to donate blood provided they haven't had sex with another man for 12 months.

That proposal is backed by the American Red Cross and America's Blood Centers and mirrors a year-deferral rule for all other people who have had sexual contact with someone with HIV or viral hepatitis.

Dr. Louis Katz is the chief medical officer of America's Blood Centers and said new tests can detect the HIV virus within nine days of exposure.

"Our donor screening approach and our ability control units within our abnormal test results is orders of magnitude better than it was then," Dr. Katz said. "Now, the safety from HIV and hepatitis is really, many orders of magnitude better, and those infections are all treatable."

Other countries, like Britain, Australia and Japan have shifted to a one-year deferral policy. Canada's is five years.

According to a September study, a 12-month deferral could add about 317,000 pints a year to the U.S. blood supply and if the ban was completely eliminated, it could add 615,000 additional pints of blood a year, which could help 1.8 million people.

That would only increase the blood supply by two to four percent, but Dr. Katz said anything is better than zero and ultimately fair to all donors.

"From the standpoint of the risk assessment, I think that it is scientifically and medically right and that is the way that we should make policy," Dr. Katz said.

The FDA panel is expected to vote here later today and many experts are expecting it to recommend changes. But they won't be immediate -- any advice is unlikely to be implemented for at least a year.

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