A 30-year ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men has been lifted, although there remain a number of restrictions on exactly who can donate, U.S. officials announced.
The lifetime ban in force for three decades has been replaced with a new policy that only bars donations from men who have had sex with a man at some point in the previous year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.
The FDA, referring to the new 12-month "deferral" period, said the new policy reflects "the most current scientific evidence" and is in line with current deferral policies in other countries, such as Great Britain and Australia.
"The FDA's responsibility is to maintain a high level of blood product safety for people whose lives depend on it," said FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, M.D. "We have taken great care to ensure this policy revision is backed by sound science and continues to protect our blood supply."
Medical groups and gay advocates have been lobbying for a change in the policy for years; the announced deferral policy was first proposed in 2014.
The FDA says it considered lifting all restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood, but concluded such an action could increase the risk of HIV transmission through the blood supply by 400 percent.
"An increase of that magnitude is not acceptable," says Peter Marks, deputy director of the agency's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
While some gay activists applauded the FDA's decision as a step in the right direction, not all were pleased with the continuing restrictions.
"It continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men," says David Stacy of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights group in the U.S. "It simply cannot be justified in light of current scientific research and updated blood screening technology."
The ban the FDA has lifted dates to 1983 and the beginning days of the AIDS crisis, when little was known about HIV and its transmission.
A study by UCLA in 2010 estimated lifting the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual blood donors could increase the annual amount of donated blood each year by two to four percent, making as much as 615,000 additional pints available each year.
Marks described the new policy as a "first step," explaining that the FDA would conduct ongoing research and evaluation of new data gathered after the new guidelines go into effect.