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  • Nic F. Anderson

Senators Urge FDA to Remove Limitations on Blood Donations From Gay Men Amid Blood Supply Shortage

A historic blood shortage in the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to lift the deferral that prohibits gay and bisexual men donating blood if they are currently having sex with other men.

Last week, 22 U.S. senators sent a letter to the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services insisting the FDA to lift the deferral and allow gay and bisexual men. New York’s Senators, Kristen Gillibran (D-NY) and Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-NY), did not sign the letter; however, New Jersey’s Senator Cory A. Booker did sign the letter.

"The legacy of bans on blood donation continues to be painful, especially for LGBTQI+ communities," the White House official told ABC News in a statement. "The President is committed to ensuring that this policy is based on science, not fiction or stigma. While there are no new decisions to announce at the moment, the FDA is currently supporting the 'ADVANCE' study, a scientific study to develop relevant scientific evidence and inform any potential policy changes."

Blood donations from gay and bisexual men started in the AIDS crisis during the 1980s, specifically, 1983 when the federal government implemented a lifetime ban on men who have sex with men from the year 1977 onward. The ban was intended to stop HIV positive blood being donated but HIV/AIDS can happen to anyone, not just gay and bisexual men.

Risk factors include having unprotected anal or vaginal sex; sharing contaminated needles, syringes or other injecting equipment; receiving unsafe injections or medical procedures; accidental needle sticks (typically happens with healthcare workers, but not always); amongst others, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In 2015, the FDA lifted the lifetime ban that prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating blood at any point in their life to a one-year deferral, meaning that a gay or bisexual man would be eligible to donate blood if they abstained from sex for one year.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) stated in a release: “Donors are deferred based on their membership in a group — in this case, all men who have sex with men — rather than engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex. For example, a man who has had protected oral sex with another man once in the 3 months currently barred from donating blood. Yet a woman who has had unprotected sex with multiple partners over the same time frame with no knowledge of their personal histories remains in the donor pool.”

In April 2020, the FDA announced that it would update the policy regarding the gay and bisexual men who donate blood and reduce the deferral period of one year to three months. However, this includes those who test negative for HIV/AIDS, practice safe sex, are monogamous or all of the above.

“HRC has strongly encouraged FDA to revise the donor questionnaire based on an individual risk assessment of sexual behaviors upon which all donors are evaluated equally, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity,” HRC stated in the release.

The senators who penned the letter called the deferral discriminatory and outdated. “It is critical that all patients have access to the health care services they need during this pandemic, and for many, the availability of blood and blood products is a necessary component of care. Unfortunately, a significant drop in the number of donations during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a serious shortage of available blood,” the letter read.

The senators who did sign the letter include one of the few publicly “out” politicians, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).

“As the medical community continues to express urgency for Americans to donate blood, there is still a discriminatory and unnecessary FDA policy in place that hinders healthy gay and bisexual men, as well as other LGBTQ people, from doing so, many of whom are willing and wanting to donate blood during this health crisis,” Rich Ferraro, GLAAD’s chief communications officer, told the Huffington Post last week.

The news comes as the American Red Cross announced last week that the United States is experiencing the “worst blood shortage in over a decade. The dangerously low blood supply levels have forced some hospitals to defer patients from major surgery, including organ transplants.” America is experiencing a national blood crisis for the first time ever.

The American Red Cross has asked citizens to consider donating blood immediately as the nation’s blood supply went from enough for five days, to less than one day reserve.

“Winter weather across the country and the recent surge of COVID-19 cases are compounding the already-dire situation facing the blood supply,” Dr. Baia Lasky, the medical director for the Red Cross, wrote in a statement. “Please, if you are eligible, make an appointment to give blood or platelets in the days and weeks ahead to ensure no patient is forced to wait for critical care.”

To give blood in New York City, visit the New York Blood Center.

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