A big change looks to be coming to the Food & Drug Administration's long-criticized guidelines for blood donors as it relates to the LGBTQ community. Bloomberg reports that the agency is seeking to ease its restrictions on gay and bisexual men, who, under the current policy, have had to abstain from sex with other men for three months before donating blood. Now, per an updated proposal, donor eligibility will be assessed via "individual risk-based questions," regardless of gender or sexual orientation, in order to help prevent the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. In an accompanying release on Friday, the FDA notes that the change came about after its "careful review of available information, including data from other countries with similar HIV epidemiology that have instituted this approach, as well as ongoing surveillance of the US blood supply."
The Washington Post notes that the modification comes after "years of protest," not only by LGBTQ groups, but also by the American Medical Association and blood banks, which have faced supply shortages over the years. They've all asserted that the current rules—which don't make an exception even for healthy gay men in longtime monogamous relationships—around this are homophobic, not to mention not terribly useful in keeping the US blood supply safe. The ban against gay men used to be for life, per guidelines handed down in 1985. In 2015, advances in testing led to the ban being reduced to 12 months, then down to three in 2020, amid serious blood shortages during the early days of the pandemic. Countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom have already lifted similar restrictions.
The new eligibility criteria would instead focus on potential donors' sexual activity. Some activists say the new guidelines still keep certain willing donors away, prohibiting those who've had anal sex—the virus spreads more easily that way than via vaginal sex—with new partners within the last three months from donating, even if they test negative for HIV and use condoms. Many, however, are hailing the change as a much-needed move that will reduce stigma and bolster the blood supply. "Nobody has been infected through blood transfusion for more than 20 years," Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Stefan Baral tells the Post. The FDA is expected to fully accept the proposal after a period of public comment. Newly eligible donors will likely be able to start offering up their veins by the end of this year or early next. (Read more blood donations stories.)