The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s policy on gay men being barred from donating blood since 1977 could save lives if it was reversed, based on findings in a new study.

Analysis of the study, which done by the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, indicates that lifting of the ban could increase the number of men donating blood as well as the amount of blood donated. Over 4.2 million men are eligible to donate, while 360,600 are likely to donate.

That said, the total blood supply yearly in the U.S. would increase by 2 percent to 4 percent, with possibly about 345,400 to 615,300 more pints of blood donated annually.

“The American Red Cross suggests that each blood donation has the potential to be used in life-saving procedures on three individuals. Our estimates suggest that lifting the blood donation ban among MSM could be used to help save the lives of more than 1.8 million people,” study author Ayako Miyashita said in a statement.

The FDA has barred men who engage in sex with other men (MSM) from donating blood since 1977, when the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. started, for one reason.

“This is because MSM are, as a group, at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion,” said the FDA on its Q&A page.

The FDA also clarified that its deferral policy is not because of the sexual orientation of the blood donor but because of the documented increased transfusion risk.

The U.K. and Canada, however, have recently made changes to such laws, from indefinite suspension of MSM to a 12-month and 5-year suspension, respectively.

New regulations were also established in Mexico, applying new criteria for donating blood as “based on risk factors for transmission of blood-borne diseases.”

Regardless of changes in international and domestic policies banning MSM from donating blood, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains its current position.

Even the Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability decided not to suggest any changes to the current deferral policy, mentioning the necessity to first “establish and fund an ongoing, integrated, coordinated, and nationally representative U.S. transfusion transmissible infections monitoring system.”

In a joint 2010 statement from groups who handle blood banking and transfusion medicine -- America’s Blood Centers, the American Association of Blood Banks and the American Red Cross -- the organizations renewed their call for the government to modify the lifetime deferral and instead consider further a 12-month deferral for allowing MSM individuals to donate. The groups first recommended the FDA change its deferral crietria in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assesses that 781,300 MSM have HIV, according to the group’s study.

The study, “Update: Effects of Lifting Blood Donation Bans on Men Who Have Sex with Men,” can be accessed here [pdf].

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