RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The US government continues to bar many sexually active gay men from donating blood, as hospitals plead for help with COVID-19 hospitalizations at an all-time high.
Current FDA rules block men who have sex with men from being donors, unless they have not had sex in three months; a rule obviously based on the honor system.
Despite the American Red Cross sounding a new and reverberating alarm for a critical blood shortage, the FDA is not immediately reversing an amended policy that first originated at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
That was 1984. In 2022, James Millner in Richmond is among a population who may desire to assist the current crisis, but cannot.
“It is morally responsible, I think it is something that is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to other people. It’s literally the gift of life,” Millner said while recalling his high school days when he organized several blood drives.
Millner, executive director of Virginia Pride — an LGBTQ advocacy group in Richmond — says the FDA policy hurts him, and fiancé Richard; a 10-year pair.
“We need to continue to prioritize science over stigma,” he said.
The federal government had banned all donations from these men indefinitely; stemming from their 1984 policy.
In 2020, the rule was relaxed, but critics say it still targets gay men.
“For people of the community we know, this is not new to us, and, it’s very unfortunate,” Darius Pryor said.
As manager of HIV testing and prevention at Health Brigade in Richmond, Pryor said the FDA’s policy is confusing.
“If I were to give blood and my blood were to be cleared [to be used in a patient], why would that blood not be able to be used?,” he asked.
Tonight, the Virginia arm of the American Red Cross issued a clear rebuke of the FDA policy in light of increased COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“The Red Cross believes blood donation eligibility should not be based on sexual orientation … and that accurate donor histories and medically supported donor deferral criteria are critical to the continued safety of blood transfusion,” the statement read.
The FDA Responds
8News asked the FDA why, if all donated blood is tested regardless, they had a policy excluding certain donors.
They said the ban was based on the so-called “window period” of infection, when antibodies and the virus itself are still too low to be reliably detected by tests, but could potentially cause “the release of contaminated blood products.”
Gay men do still make up the majority of new HIV cases int he United States, however, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, heterosexual people make up 23% of all new HIV diagnoses – and while there was a downward trend in infections among men who have sex with men, there had been no change in other categories, including infections of heterosexual people.
8News also asked the FDA why, if they were concerned with risky sexual behavior, they still excluded men in monogamous relationships with other men.
The FDA said they were conducting studies to evaluate an individual screening process that could replace the categorical bans in place now, but said they “do not have a specific timeline for when these studies may be completed.”
The FDA’s three-month blood donor ban also applies to women who have recently had sex with men who have sex with men, people who recently received tattoos and piercings and sex workers.