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Orlando shooting reignites debate over blood donations from gay men

Long lines of people wait at the OneBlood Donation Center to donate blood for the injured victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.
Gerardo Mora | Getty Images
Long lines of people wait at the OneBlood Donation Center to donate blood for the injured victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.

Thousands of people packed OneBlood donation centers in Florida for the second day in a row in an effort to help replenish the blood supply for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which killed 49 victims and injured dozens more. But one group of willing volunteers continue to be left out: gay men.

OneBlood, a non-profit with blood donation centers in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, released a statement Sunday clearing up circulating false rumors that the Food and Drug Administration's rules regarding blood donations for gay men were temporarily being lifted.

FDA guidelines allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood only if they have remained abstinent for a year.

Many took to social media to express their confusion and anger over the FDA's continued ban on donations from sexually active gay and bisexual men, in the face of need for blood after Orlando's events. In response, the FDA said there is adequate supply to meet current needs.

Yet for Kelsey Louie, CEO of Gay Men's Health Crisis, even if the FDA had issued a temporary lift, it would not be a strong enough solution.

"That might have been a short-term solution," he told CNBC. "What needs to happen is there needs to be a policy change. We really need to push the FDA for a science-based policy."

In December 2015, the FDA lifted its lifetime ban on accepting blood donations from gay men in light of the culmination of new scientific evidence and criticism from both the medical and LGBT community. Gay and bisexual men have been ineligible to donate blood for more than 30 years, beginning in 1983 at the start of the AIDS crisis when little was known about the disease.

Louie said the current policy is discriminatory because it promotes a stigma that HIV is inherently a gay disease and that only gay men receive it, which is false. Technology has progressed enough for others to prevent the disease and detect it early, he added. After donations, blood is tested for several infectious agents and the FDA inspects all blood facilities at least every two years.

Prevention methods like PrEP, for example, can help reduce the risk of transmission of HIV. PrEP is a pill used to prevent HIV taken by people with partners who have HIV or those at risk. But the FDA is concerned about recent, sometimes undetectable infections, according to their website.

"The FDA's responsibility is to maintain a high level of blood product safety for people whose lives depend on it," Stephen Ostroff, at the time the FDA's acting commissioner, said about the change in December. "We have taken great care to ensure this policy revision is backed by sound science and continues to protect our blood supply."

Blood donation practices in other countries vary. Several countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom, have 12-month recommendations for gay men that are similar to those in the U.S. In Italy, however, blood donation criteria is based on individual assessments.

The FDA said, for right now, there is enough blood.

"At this time there is an adequate supply of blood to meet the need," the FDA's Tara Goodin said in a statement. "The scientific evidence is not available to support an alternative to the current deferral policy. We empathize with those who might wish to donate, but reiterate that at this time no one who needs blood is doing without it."

The FDA is committed to continuing to reevaluate its blood donor deferral policies as new scientific information becomes available, Goodin said.

According to the administration's website, the FDA could once again consider making changes to the guidelines based on the most recent scientific knowledge and continued assurance of public safety.

Meanwhile, GMHC will hold a press conference Tuesday on the steps of City Hall Park in New York to discuss the FDA's current blood donation policy. The event will include medical experts, scientists and members of the LGBT community, according to the press release.