Men who've had sex with other men at least once in the past 35 years are not allowed to donate blood in the United States.
The guideline, adopted by the Food and Drug Administration in 1985, was designed to reduce the risk of HIV infection through blood transfusions. In 2009, 61 percent of new HIV cases were among gay and bisexual men, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But today, some advocates say the policy is outdated. They say it doesn't reflect the development of new, highly-sensitive tests that could detect donors with HIV -- or the fact that the nation faces a shortage of blood donors. A 2010 UCLA study estimated that 90,000 additional pints of blood could become available if blood banks could take men who hadn't had sex with another man in a year.
Today, the risk of HIV infection through blood transfusions is one in 2 million.
Even with the new tests, the FDA says there's roughly a two-week period when someone with HIV could test negative because viral levels are undetectable.
Advocates also worry that the ban adds to the stigma felt by many gay men, undermining efforts to establish an AIDS-free generation. Many blood drives take place at schools or workplaces, so gay and bisexual men "who aren't out are often faced with forced disclosure," said Nathan Schaefer of the Gay Men's Health Advocacy Group, who organized a presentation at this week's International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.
In 2006, several organizations, including the American Red Cross, issued a statement calling the policy "medically and scientifically unwarranted." This year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked organizations to suggest new behavioral criteria to screen low-risk gay and bisexual men.
Red Cross affiliates are required to follow the guidelines, said Sue Gonsior of the North Central chapter. But she said the organization is "disappointed'' with the rule and is willing to conduct further research to make sure the issue is "treated with fairness and equality.''