The United States faces its worst blood supply crisis in more than a decade, with about one-fourth of hospital needs not being met. But a group of lawmakers say there’s an easy way to put a dent in the shortage: increase the number of people eligible.
The donor pool is limited. Not everyone qualifies to donate – most prominently, men who have recently had sex with other men. But the shortage has prompted nearly two dozen senators, led by Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, to call for the Food and Drug Administration to change that.
“We urge the FDA to quickly act on the best available science and update its outdated and discriminatory blood donor deferral policies for men who have sex with men, a long overdue step that would dramatically increase the eligible donor base,” the senators wrote Thursday.
That gay and bisexual men can donate blood at all is still a relatively recent development. In 1983, the agency barred blood donations from all men who had had sex with men after 1977 to “to reduce the transmission of HIV by blood and blood products — a concern made moot with the advancement of blood testing technology.” In 2015, the policy was revised to allow donations from men who had abstained from sexual relations with another man for at least one year. Then in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a decrease in donations, the agency in March 2020 decreased the time frame to three months, guidance that also applies to women who have had sex with a man who has had sex with another man and anyone with new tattoos or piercings.
“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 senators wrote, requesting a briefing in the next 30 days on the FDA’s policy revisions.
In a statement to The 19th, an FDA spokeswoman confirmed the receipt of the senators’ letter and said the agency would respond to the members directly. It takes “time and effort” to change blood donor policies, she added, and there is no specific timeline for a governmental review of current eligibility guidelines.
The demands for blood are dire. As the pandemic disrupts participation and scheduling, blood drives are less frequent and bringing in fewer donors. as the pandemic disrupts participation and scheduling. The American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and AABB — the country’s leading blood donation organizations — declared a nationwide crisis last week. More than 16 million units of blood and blood products are transfused each year, which means more than 45,000 units are needed daily.
“Blood donations are needed now to avert the need to postpone potential lifesaving treatments,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “Some hospitals have already been forced to alter treatment for some patients or cancel some patient surgeries.”
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According to the FDA, there has been a 10 percent donation decline since March 2020, compounded by a nearly two-thirds drop in college and high school blood drives during the pandemic and ongoing drive cancellations. In recent weeks, there has been less than a one-day supply of critical blood types, according to the American Red Cross, which supplies 40 percent of the nation’s blood supplies to hospitals.
LGBTQ+ advocacy groups are aware of the crisis — and have long been critical of the barriers.
“Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion to survive,” David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “But right now, the FDA continues to use archaic, discriminatory criteria to determine an individual’s eligibility to donate blood solely on their sexual orientation — not their individual risk factors — which is not rooted in science, limits access to crucial blood products and stigmatizes one segment of society.”
Many countries are reviewing blood donation restrictions that were imposed during the 1980s AIDS crisis. In addition to the United States, Northern Ireland, Australia, Austria and Denmark reduced their prerequisite abstinent periods for gay and bisexual men. In recent years, Israel and Hungary removed all restrictions on blood donations and Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled its year-long deferral period unconstitutional. And last month, the blood regulatory agency in Canada proposed removing all screening questions based on gender and sexuality.