There is mounting pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to replace a rule that prevents some gay and bisexual men from donating blood which dates back to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
A group of 22 U.S. Senators, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar signed a letter asking the agencies to lift the rule they describe as ‘discriminatory and wrong’.
The call comes as the American Red Cross warns the nation is facing a ‘blood crisis’ due to falling levels of donations caused by the pandemic. The organization reports that some hospitals and donation centers only have a day’s worth of blood on hand.
Rules against men who have sex with other men (MSM) donating blood date back to the 1980s in the U.S. While restrictions have been eased in recent years, an MSM who has had sex with a man in the past three months – or a woman who has had sex with an MSM during that period – are currently barred from donating blood.
A group of 22 Senators are calling for the FDA and HHS to lift restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood. Earlier this week, the Red Cross announced the U.S. was facing a ‘blood crisis’ with some hospitals and blood centers only having a day’s worth of blood on hand. Blood donations have dropped 10% since the pandemic first began. Pictured: A woman in Los Angeles, California, donates blood on December 13
The senators described restrictions on gay men donating blood ‘discriminatory and wrong’. Currently an MSM, a man who has sex with other men, are not allowed to donate blood within three months of their last sexual activity. Gay rights advocates argue that the dropping prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the available prevention measures for the diseases make it safe for gay men to donate blood. Pictured: Gay rights advocates at a march held by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group
‘While no single solution can fully solve these challenges, the FDA has the ability to take a simple and science-based step to dramatically increase the donor base and help address this crisis,’ the letter reads.
‘… any policy that continues to categorically single out the LGBTQ+ community is discriminatory and wrong.’
Earlier this week, the Red Cross declared that the U.S. was in the midst of a ‘blood crisis’ due to falling donations.
The organization reports that there has been a ten percent reduction in total donations since the COVID-19 pandemic began in America in March 2020.
Schools and universities often serve as crucial parts of blood donation drives, but the total number of drives at educational facilities has dropped 62 percent during the pandemic.
Many other blood donation drives have been cancelled due to staffing issues, the Red Cross reports, as the blood donation industry has faced many of the same problems the rest of America is.
‘At a time when many businesses and organizations across the country are experiencing pandemic challenges, the Red Cross is no different,’ it wrote in a statement.
Currently, any MSM who has been active in the past three months is barred from donating blood. They are removed from candidacy from a mandatory screening people fill out before donation in America.
‘Given advances in blood screening and safety technology, 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 says.
Restrictions on MSM donating blood date as far back as 1983 in America. At the time, HIV and AIDS were new diseases that were running rampant among gay men, though the world did not have a strong understanding of the diseases.
‘Given advances in blood screening and safety technology, 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 from Senators to the FDA and HHS reads. (file photo)
An increased stigma was placed on gay men during this time, and fears of HIV and AIDS entering the blood supply led to restrictions going into place.
The prevalence of HIV has dropped significantly over time, though, as people are more aware of the condition now, how to prevent it, and many in the developed world now have access to technology that helps prevent transmission of the virus.
‘With increased uptake of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which significantly reduces the likelihood that an HIV-negative individual will acquire HIV, many more gay and bisexual men are aware of their HIV status and are taking steps to eliminate their personal risk,’ the Senators’ letter reads.
‘Instead of the current categorical deferral guidelines, we must adopt evidence-based policies focused on assessment of an individual’s risk, not inaccurate and antiquated stereotypes.’
Per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 15,000 Americans died of HIV or Aids in 2019, a far drop from the peak of over 40,000 deaths in the late 1980s.
In 2015, the FDA and HHS revised rules to allow MSM to donate blood as long as it had been 12 months since their last sexual activity.
When Covid arrived in the U.S., many medical professionals immediately feared that it would cause blood shortages.
The FDA responded by reducing the window to three months at the start of April 2020, only weeks into the pandemic.
Many medical professionals criticized the FDA at the time, though, with 500 writing an open letter to the agencies to remove the restrictions entirely later in April 2020.
Now that the feared shortage of blood has been realized, pressure is mounting once more on government officials to lift the restrictions.
The FDA and HHS have not yet responded to the letter.