Gay-rights activists yesterday blasted a decision by a federal panel to maintain a ban on blood donations from gay men.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Committee's Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability voted 9-6 not to recommend lifting the ban despite calls from lawmakers and the American Red Cross to reconsider a prohibition that was created at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates blood donations, forbids any man who has had sex with another man in the last 33 years from giving blood.

"This decision is outrageous, irresponsible and archaic," Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said in a statement. "We expect more out of this advisory committee and this administration than to uphold an unnecessarily discriminatory policy from another era."

The final decision will be made by the FDA. The panel did vote unanimously yesterday to label the current policy "suboptimal."

Technological advancements since the ban went into effect allow experts to properly test blood donations for HIV, but the virus is undetectable for two weeks after it is contracted.

Lifting the ban would add 219,000 pints to the nation's blood supply annually, according to one study, but opponents of changing the policy noted that the relatively small increase in donations wasn't worth the added risk.

The American Red Cross already collects more than 15 million pints of blood annually.