WASHINGTON (AP) – The US is moving to ease restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men and other groups who traditionally face a higher risk of HIV.
The Food and Drug Administration announced draft guidelines Friday that would eliminate the current three-month abstinence requirement for donations from men who have sex with men. Instead, potential donors will be screened with a questionnaire that evaluates their individual risks for HIV based on sexual behavior, recent partners, and other factors.
If finalized, the change would be the FDA’s latest move to broaden donor eligibility, which would have the potential to boost the US blood supply.
Gay rights groups have long opposed sweeping restrictions on who can give blood, saying they discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Medical societies, including the American Medical Association, have also stated that such exclusions are unnecessary given the advances in technology to test blood for infectious diseases.
“Current and past blood donation policies make unfounded assumptions about gay and bisexual men and actually complicate the identity of individuals with the potential to have HIV,” said Sarah Warbelow of the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
The US and several other countries began barring gay and bisexual men from donating blood during the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, with the aim of preventing the spread of HIV through the blood supply.
In 2015, the FDA lifted the lifetime ban and replaced it with a one-year sobriety requirement. Then in 2020, after donations plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency reduced the abstinence period to three months.
Regulators said those changes resulted in no negative impact on the blood supply.
The FDA sets the requirements and procedures for blood banks throughout the United States. All potential donors answer questions about their sexual history, drug use and recent tattoos or piercings, among other factors that may contribute to the spread of blood-borne infections. Donated blood is tested for HIV, hepatitis C, syphilis, and other infectious diseases.
Under the new questionnaire, men who have sex with men will be asked about new or multiple partners in the past three months. Those who answer positively to any of the questions and also report having had anal sex will be barred from donating until a later date. This policy would also apply to women who have sex with gay or bisexual men.
This policy mirrors those used in Canada and the UK
The FDA based its latest proposal on a recent study of 1,600 gay and bisexual men. FDA-funded research compared the effectiveness of a detailed, individualized questionnaire on sexual behavior with current time-based abstinence regimens.
According to Cliff Numark, an executive at the blood center Vitalant, which participated in the study, it will take months for blood banks to make the change. The changes will require new questionnaires, training for staff and updating computer software.
The Red Cross said it supports the FDA changes but added that it is too early to know if they will lead to more blood donations.
Lukas Pietrzak of Washington, D.C., said he volunteered for the FDA study out of curiosity. He credits an emergency blood transfusion for saving his father’s life after a bicycle accident in 1991.
Pietrzak donated blood in high school but was disqualified after becoming sexually active as a gay man.
“Until I fully came out to my friends, I had to avoid why I didn’t go to blood drives with them,” says Peterzak, 26, who now works for the federal government.
“Now we’re able to be a part of it,” Peterczak said, when calls come in for blood donations.