Gay men are still unable to donate blood despite shortages, new FDA guidelines

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

By: Nicole Heller / Staff Writer

Gay male donors are being turned away from blood donation sites despite a blood shortage during the pandemic. 

For years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has restricted men who had sex with men from donating blood and plasma if they have had sex with another man within the last 12 months, supposedly as a method for preventing the spread of HIV. 

However, the FDA changed these restrictions in April by reducing the donation deferral period for men who had sex with another man from 12 months to three months after the urgent need for blood.  

Testimonies suggest that despite the change in the FDA guidelines, hundreds of the country’s blood centers are still unable to accept blood from gay men even though there is a desperate need for blood that could save many lives. Lukus Estok was one of the people who shared his story about being turned away in a blood center located in New York.

Dr. Cheryl Holder, a Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine professor, says this might be happening because blood centers are not prepared to implement and comply with the new FDA guideline. 

“It becomes difficult for everyone involved to implement the changes so fast. It will require more time and education to see the new guideline be in effect,” Dr. Holder said. “I know of a situation in New York where a gay man was able to donate plasma for COVID-19. So, in some areas, you’ll see a faster response to the changes and recommendations, and others will lack.”

Although Dr. Holder does not know of anyone who was turned away, she said that it is important to discuss this situation as “we could be missing a very vital part of our population that could help us save lives.”

She suggests using science to help us determine who are safe donors. She believes someone’s sexual orientation should not be the guide.  

“We have to continue to push against guidelines which do not use the proper science and result in discriminating and stigmatizing certain groups of people,” she said. 

Dr. Holder noted that with today’s testing methods, we can detect very early if the blood is contaminated or not. 

The professor said the risk of contaminated blood exists both for someone that has had sex with a heterosexual or homosexual. 

“It shouldn’t be based on that; it should be based on science and taking the blood through the proper testing to keep our blood supply safe,” she said. 

Dr. Milton Wainberg, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, explained why the new FDA guideline just “doesn’t make any sense.” 

“There is no biological evidence to support the three months or the one year,” he said. “Every blood is tested no matter what, regardless of anyone’s sexual behaviors. Singling out men that have sex with men is based on prejudice and discrimination.”

Dr. Wainberg explained that every blood is screened before any donation is made, despite the sexual orientation of a person. One method for testing HIV is through antibodies but could take between 6 to 12 weeks to accurately determine if a person is infected or not. 

Based on this data,  the FDA decided to reduce the donation deferral period from 12 to 3 months for increasing the blood supply which is desperately needed in the country. 

However, according to Dr. Wainberg, blood centers are currently using a faster method for testing HIV, by testing for the virus itself, rather than the antibodies. He says there is no need for discriminating gay men as they could be potential donors.  Therefore, current blood centers’ testing capabilities do not justify even the three months’ time frame. 

The psychiatrist also argues that it is not only discriminatory but also unethical because nowadays people infected with HIV could have Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), a treatment to prevent developing the virus after being in contact with it. 

“It is based on prejudice. It is based on a history that we already overcame probably 20 years ago. We should be able to change this,” Dr. Wainberg said.

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