In 1985, the FDA instituted lifetime bans on gay men donating blood. This regulation was created entirely to prevent the spread of HIV. And over the years, the agency has stood by its decision to keep this regulation in place. Although they occasionally acknowledge that their policy appears hurtful, they also claim that public health is better served by this status quo.
And in fairness to the FDA, this ban may have been a practical necessity 30 years ago. Back then, HIV antibody testing was slow, expensive, and inaccurate.
But today, it’s really hard to see how this regulation still makes sense. It doesn’t look like the right policy from a theoretical, bayesian, or even an empirical perspective:
- Theoretically, HIV screening shouldn’t be as much of a burden now as it was 30 years ago. Antibody testing has become faster, cheaper, more sensitive, and more specific.
- From a bayesian perspective, it’s compelling evidence that in 2006, the American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers all recommended that the FDA change their policy from lifetime bans on gay donors to 1 year deferments for actively gay men.
- And empirically, Australia already changed their policy from lifetime bans to 1 year deferment periods back in 2000. After ten years of the updated policy, four researchers actually checked the data on what happened:
- In a 5 year period before the ban was lifted, 4,025,571 units of blood were donated, 24 units tested positive for HIV, and no recipients were infected.
- In a 5 year period after the ban was lifted, 4,964,628 units if blood were donated, 24 units tested positive for HIV, and no recipients were infected.
As far as I can tell, the current FDA policy is mostly just protecting us from ending up like Australia — you know, where the total blood supply increased by 20%, thousands of lives were saved, and absolutely nothing bad happened.