Even as U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams pleads with Americans to donate much-needed blood, the Food and Drug Administration is insisting on keeping its ban on men who have had sex with men unless they have abstained from sex for 12 months.
Adams urged Americans to donate blood to ensure there are no shortages while they attempt to socially distance themselves during the COVID-19 crisis during a recent press conference.
But LGBTQ advocates quickly noted that gay or bisexual men, for instance, are prohibited from contributing, even though any blood donated is tested for diseases.
The blood ban, as it is still known, stems from a previous policy put in place around the time of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when testing was rare, in an effort to avoid transmission of HIV through blood transfusions.
The ban targeted men who had sex with men, on the basis that that group was most at risk of developing HIV. But recent advances in science, as well as testing of all blood donations, has made a broad-based ban irrelevant.
While other countries, including the United Kingdom, have instituted a three-month deferral period for all men who have sex with men — meaning they must have been celibate for at least 90 days prior to donating — the United States changed its policy to a one-year deferral period for the same group in late 2015.
But heterosexual individuals who have been sexually active — and are engaging in high-risk behaviors that could result in contracting HIV — are not subject to a similar deferral period.
LGBTQ advocates have since been calling for the deferral period to be reduced to a smaller window of time, based on available science about the risk of HIV and other blood-borne diseases.
The LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD called for the one-year deferral period to be lifted by the FDA, tweeting: “The antiquated ban that still prevents gay and bisexual men, and men who have sex with men from donating blood must be immediately lifted by the @US_FDA.”
— Sarah Kate Ellis (@sarahkateellis) March 19, 2020
“Currently, all men who have had sex with men in the past 12 months can not donate blood,” Ellis continued in a statement. “Leading medical experts have highlighted for years that the ban is ineffective and doesn’t rely on science.”
Ellis noted that the American Public Health Association has stated that the current ban “is not based in science but appears to be modeled after other countries’ choices and fears.”
The Red Cross has spoken out against the ban, saying that blood donation eligibility “should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation.”
The Williams Institute, a public policy think tank at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law that specializes in LGBTQ issues, has estimated that if the blood ban were to be lifted, an additional 360,000 men could potentially donate, thus making it possible for their blood to be used to save the lives of up to more than a million people requiring blood transfusions.
“Holding on to an antiquated, discriminatory ban during these uncertain times is absurd,” Ellis said. “The FDA needs to put science above stigma. Gay and bisexual men, and men who have sex with men want to give blood and should be able to contribute to help their fellow Americans.”
California State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has added his voice to the cause.
“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules, our blood banks are experiencing a severe blood shortage and desperately need blood donations,” Wiener said in a statement. “This blood shortage threatens lives. Yet, despite this emergency need, the FDA continues to take a non-science-based approach by irrationally excluding sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating.
“I, for one, would love to donate blood to help out in this time of need, but because I’m a gay man and have not been celibate for the past year, I’m prohibited. By contrast, a straight person who’s had sex with multiple partners in the past month can donate,” he added. “The reality is that blood banks test all blood for HIV, and modern testing techniques are overwhelmingly accurate in detecting and discarding HIV-positive blood. We’re in a national and global healthcare emergency, and it’s all hands on deck. We need the FDA to take a science-based, rational approach to blood donation — and to end this discriminatory exclusion.”
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