The American Red Cross says the U.S. is facing its worst blood shortage crisis in more than a decade. COVID-19 lockdowns and changing public health guidelines have been keeping donors away for the last two years. According to a January 11 statement, the organization has had less than a one-day supply of critical blood types. It has been sending less blood to hospitals, which can leave patients who need a blood transfusion on edge as they wait for more stock to arrive.
Some companies and municipalities are trying to encourage eligible donors using various incentives. For example, a new bill would give Californians a $500 tax credit if they donate. Meanwhile, Krispy Kreme says it will give away a dozen free donuts to anyone that “Dough-nates blood.”
However, critics say it’s time for the Red Cross to do away with discriminatory donor eligibility requirements that prevent men who have sex with men from donating blood. Getting rid of these requirements could increase the nation’s blood supply during this trying time.
The Right to Donate Blood
As the nation’s stockpile of blood declines, advocates say members of the LGBTQ+ community should be able to donate as they see fit. The Red Cross recently updated its guidelines for eligible donors to relieve some of these restrictions, but men who have sex with men still need to jump through regulatory hurdles when donating.
When HIV was spreading rapidly through the gay and bisexual community in the 1980s, the FDA implemented a lifetime ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood to prevent the spread of the virus.
This restriction may have made sense back in 80s considering it took several months to know if an individual had contracted HIV after a sexual encounter.
But that’s no longer the case. New technology can detect HIV in the blood supply just ten days to a month after a sexual encounter.
As a result, the FDA eventually revised the lifetime ban to a year of celibacy in 2015. Gay and bisexual men had to abstain from sex for 12 months before they could donate. The requirements were shortened to three months of celibacy in April 2020.
But critics say even three months is too long now that we can detect HIV in just a matter of weeks.
The Red Cross says that all donated blood is tested for infectious agents, including Trypanosoma cruzi (commonly known as Chagas disease), hepatitis B and C viruses, HIV, human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV), West Nile virus, Zika virus, babesia and syphilis.
With these safeguards in place, other countries, such as Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Russia, South Africa, Spain, and Hungary, have since removed any deferral on donations from men who have sex with men. Just last month, France’s Health Minister Olivier Veran announced, “We are ending an inequality that was no longer justified.” Beginning in March, gay and bisexual men in France will no longer be restricted from blood donation.
Studies show there are around 7 million men in the United States that have sex with other men, many of whom identify as gay or bisexual, but this is likely an undercount, considering many men that have sex with other men keep this information private.
An analysis by the Williams Institute, a public policy research institute based at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, predicts that lifting the blood donation ban could increase the total annual blood supply by 2% to 4%, translating to 345,400 to 615,300 pints of blood annually.
France’s health minister added that the chances of a donor having HIV without knowing it remain exceedingly rare, “currently estimated at one in 11.6 million donations, or one potentially HIV-infected donation every four years.”
Critics also argue that these restrictions contribute to negative stereotypes that all gay and bisexual men have HIV. For example, a heterosexual male could engage in risky sexual practices for years without facing a deferral.
Gay and bisexual men also have access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications. When taken consistently, PrEP is essentially 100% effective in preventing HIV transmission by sex.
Information for LGBTQ+ Donors
According to the latest eligibility requirements from the Red Cross, men who have sex with men must still abstain from sex for at least three months.
“Individuals who have been deferred for MSM in the past may initiate donor reinstatement as early as June 2020 by contacting the Red Cross Donor and Client Support Center at 1-866-236-3276. Individuals who have been deferred for MSM in the past may begin receiving phone calls to schedule donation appointments as early as June 2020. First time donors may be eligible to donate blood.”
Gay and bisexual men cannot simply walk into a donation clinic if they want to donate.
If you are interested in donating, you will need to call ahead and confirm that you have abstained from sexual activity for three months.
“Individuals will need to call the Donor and Client Support Center at 1-866-236-3276 to confirm their eligibility before coming to donate. Individuals who have been deferred for MSM in the past may initiate donor reinstatement as early as June 2020 by contacting the Donor and Client Support Center. Red Cross staff members at blood drives do not have access to remove previous deferrals from donor records.”