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Amid blood shortage, critics push FDA to lift restrictions on gay, bisexual men

Blood donation
Posted at 10:54 PM, Feb 01, 2022

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — The American Red Cross' recent declaration of a national blood crisis has reignited calls for the Food and Drug Administration to lift current donor restrictions on sexually active gay and bisexual men.

The FDA revised its guidelines during the pandemic, in April 2020, by reducing the twelve-month abstinence requirement to three months, meaning men who have sex with men must abstain from sexual activity for 90 days before donating blood.

"This blood ban is very stigmatizing," said Bridget Pitcock, a nurse practitioner and HIV specialist, who has recently worked at one of the largest LGBTQ+ health care clinics in New York City.

Pitcock, who is based in Louisville, argued that the FDA is not relying on science-based evidence to justify its restrictions, noting that there are several ways to test blood for HIV.

"There are about 13 tests that blood goes through after it's donated," Pitcock said. "And 11 of those are for infectious diseases."

The federal government implemented a lifetime donor ban on men who have sex with men in 1985, amid the HIV/AIDS crisis. In 2015, the FDA replaced the ban with a one-year abstinence requirement. The pandemic-induced shortage prompted the most recent change to three months.

Earlier this month, the American Red Cross declared its first blood crisis and urged people to donate amid "its worst blood shortage in over a decade."

"I think that these restrictions are getting in the way of saving lives," said Michael Clemons, who has donated blood upwards of 25 times. "There are many people just like me out there who would give blood if we're able."

A business owner and marathon runner, Clemons said he has not been able to donate blood since he began having sex with men.

"I have blood that is quality blood but have been told that, 'No, it's not good enough,'" Clemons said. "And I felt helpless that I couldn't give support in that way that I'd given support before in my life."

The American Red Cross has advocated for a change to the restrictions. A section on its website dedicated to answering questions for LGBTQ+ donors said the organization "recognizes the hurt this policy has caused to many in the LGBTQ+ community and believes blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation."

The fight has reached Congress, where more than twenty U.S. senators recently sent a letter urging the FDA to eliminate the restrictions.

"Given advances in blood screening and safety technology," the letter read. "A time-based policy for gay and bisexual men is not scientifically sound, continues to effectively exclude an entire group of people, and does not meet the urgent demands of the moment."

The letter also cited the "increased uptake of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which significantly reduces the likelihood that an HIV-negative individual will acquire HIV."

GLAAD, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, has called the restrictions "discriminatory" and "dangerous for all Americans in a worsening crisis."

Health experts, like Pitcock, have said lifting restrictions could help alleviate the current crisis.

"We have the ability to save more lives and to increase our blood supplies," Pitcock said. "And we're just not doing that."

Pitcock pointed to European countries that have seen an uptick in donors since scrapping similar restrictions. A study from the Williams Institute estimated that about 360,000 Americans would be likely to donate blood if the FDA were to lift all restrictions on men who have sex with men--an increase of 2%-4% in the annual blood supply.

"I think as soon as that ban gets lifted," Clemons said. "You'll see me out there donating blood on the regular basis that I did in the past."