A coalition of liberal interest groups and 130 members of Congress are calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change its current policy governing blood and plasma donations from men who have sex with men (MSM). Under the current policy, which was approved in December 2015, MSM must abstain from sexual contact with another man for a period of at least a year before being eligible to donate blood.
The hindrances associated with this policy became apparent after the recent massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 LGBT and allied victims were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in the history. As concerned citizens flocked to blood collection centers to donate in hopes of assisting those 53 survivors who were injured in the shooting, gay men were essentially rendered helpless to assist their own community.
“When I asked people, and other elected officials asked people, to give blood, we had over 5,000 donors in less than 24 hours,” U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said in a conference call with several organizations urging the FDA to amend its policies. “In one location, we had two blocks that had to be cordoned off because the line was that long — a line two blocks long in the rain of people anxious to give blood that day. And that’s a recognition of the impulse we all feel in times of tragedy to help, and no one should be turned away in those kinds of circumstances.”
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) was also present on the conference call with groups that include the National Gay Blood Drive, Equality Federation, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC). Since Orlando, Polis, in conjunction with Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), has been circulating a petition among their fellow House members calling for a change to the FDA’s policy. In the Senate, the effort, which has gained the support of a bipartisan group of 24 senators, is being led by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Both letters not that groups that work in the field of blood donation — namely, the American Medical Association, the Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability (ACBTSA), the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB), the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers — have called for the deferral policy to be based on science, which the members of Congress say the current policy is not. They also note that the 12-month celibacy requirement is an unrealistic burden placed only on one particular community, and, as such, eliminates potentially healthy blood donors from consideration.
“…We are concerned that the 12-month deferral policy, which suggests that the sexual relationships of MSM men and transgender women inherently pose a risk of HIV transmission, furthers a stigma that we have persistently fought to eliminate,” the House letter reads. “The FDA questionnaire should reflect risk-based behaviors as opposed to sexual orientation.”
Meanwhile, National Gay Blood Drive, the Equality Federation and the PCCC have circulated their own civilian petition calling for a science-based approach to screening potential blood donors. That petition has already gathered more than 12,000 signatures.
“The gender of one’s partner has nothing to do with whether one is engaged in risky behavior or not,” Polis said on Tuesday’s joint conference call. “It’s high time for this outdated and discriminatory policy to end, and I’m confident with such widespread support among both the American public, as well as members of Congress, the FDA will be moved to look at the science that shows, in fact, that there’s nothing inherently different about the blood of gay or bisexual Americans.”
Historically, even some of the LGBT community’s closest allies have been reluctant to embrace changes to the blood ban. This is due in part to a longstanding perception of gay and bisexual men as being at higher risk of contracting HIV, and higher rates of new infections among younger MSM, particularly MSM of color. Jay Franzone, the director of Communications for the National Gay Blood Drive, noted that the White House has stressed that any change in donor criteria should be based in science, in essence punting on the issue and leaving it up to the FDA to establish its own guidelines.
Grayson noted that the testing process used by many blood collection agencies test only for HIV and hepatitis antibodies, meaning it does not detect either disease until after the body has produced an immune response to the virus. According to Grayson, the more effective way to determine the presence of those viruses in blood is by testing for viral antigens or viral RNA. Tests for both antigens and RNA are available in the commercial market, he noted, but are not being used, often as a cost-cutting measure.
As a result, Grayson is introducing a bill that would create a federal grant program that will give money to blood banks to help them afford the more up-to-date, accurate antigen/RNA testing. This could potentially decrease the window during which blood would need to be tested, thereby lessening the deferral period. As a result, more people would be able to donate and the blood supply would remain safe from any harmful viruses or other pathogens.
Another bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), known as the DONATE Act, would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to provide increased flexibility in blood donor screening during times of emergency or great need, whether on a national or local level. The bill keeps in place other quality controls to ensure the blood supply is safe, with the aim of preventing a situation similar to Orlando, where gay and bisexual men were barred from donating despite a need for blood, particularly rare phenotypes like AB and O blood. That measure is currently being supported by Equality California, the National Gay Blood Drive, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.