September 08, 2014

Legislators Urge Secretary Burwell to Reevaluate Discriminatory, Inconsistent Blood, Organ and Tissue Donation Policies

Washington, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL) led a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell expressing continued concern regarding current policies governing blood, organ, and tissue donation by men who have sex with men (MSM) and requesting an update on the Department's progress in reassessing the policies. Legislators wrote to Secretary Sebelius last August urging a review of the outdated blood donation policy.

FDA policy currently defers MSM blood donors for life, defers MSM tissue donors for five years, and designates MSM organ donors as high-risk. These policies were put in place during a time when there were not accurate screening tests for HIV and other transfusion- and transplantation-transmissible diseases. The letter highlights the inherent unfairness of the current policies through the heartbreaking story of a mother in Iowa who was unable to donate her deceased son's eyes, as he wished, because he was gay.

The letter states, "These policies are inconsistent and fail to reflect the advances in HIV detection and the scientific community's understanding of the virus since the policy was first established. Furthermore, these policies continue to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, promote discrimination, and discourage individuals from seeking other appropriate health services... It is time that the agency took action, and we encourage such action to also address the deficiencies of the tissue donation policy."

The letter requests a written update on the Department's progress in reassessing the policy on blood donation before the end of 2014, as well as information about the related organ and tissue donation policies; an estimation of when recommendations for policy changes will be announced publicly and when these changes will take effect; and what steps are being considered to make the adjustment of the blood and tissue deferral policies possible.

The current lifetime ban on MSM donating blood was put in place during the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, but is no longer scientifically justified with current blood screening technology. In 2010, the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood & Tissue Safety & Availability (ACBTSA) found the ban to be suboptimal and asked for re-evaluation of this policy. In response to a letter from legislators in 2013, HHS indicated that the Department will finish deliberations on a policy change to the blood ban by the end of 2014.

In 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) passed a resolution opposing the current lifetime ban as discriminatory and not based on sound science. Instead, the AMA supports new donation deferral policies that are based on an individual's level of risk. The blood banking community, including the American Red Cross and America's Blood Centers, has also long-supported a change in policy.

The letter is available online here.