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Coronavirus Could Finally Kill the Ban on Gay and Bi Blood Donations



gay blood ban, blood donation image via Waldszenen

The coronavirus epidemic could prove deadly to America’s infamous ban on gay and bi blood donations. Recently, over 500 medical professionals, 20 attorneys general and 17 U.S. senators signed open letters telling the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to kill it off once and for all.

National blood donations have weakened under the epidemic. On March 19, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams asked Americans to donate blood to help combat a national shortage after states shut down the schools, churches and workplaces that typically host blood drives.

The canceled drives resulted in anywhere from 100,000 to 355,000 fewer blood donations by mid-March, according to the American Red Cross and AABB, an industry group formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks.

So to bolster the national supply, on April 2, the FDA lowered the mandatory celibacy period for gay and bisexual male blood donors from 12 months to three months.

But even though the FDA declared the change “effective immediately,”  blood donation centers nationwide have continued to refuse gay and bi men nationwide. That’s because the centers haven’t updated their donor questionnaires, their computer systems, or their staff to do otherwise.

The American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers — two organizations representing over 800 blood donation centers nationwide — say the problem won’t be fixed until June or July at earliest. In the meanwhile, America loses out on the 175,000 likely gay and bi male donors who’d give an estimated 300,000 pints of additional blood annually, potentially saving over a million lives each year.

These statistics popped up in an April 22 letter to the FDA  signed by 20 attorneys general from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.

Their letter called the current three-month celibacy period “informed more strongly by bias than science” and a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Rights Amendment. It also asserted, “Additional precautions … [can help] achieve safety goals while maximizing the blood supply.”

On April 16, the LGBTQ watchdog group, GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), issued an open letter to the FDA signed by over 500 medical professionals calling the celibacy period “antiquated… scientifically outdated and based on outdated antibody-based HIV testing algorithms.”

The letter also reminded the FDA that their international counterparts aren’t nearly as queerphobic in this regard:

Mexico, Russia, as well as several countries in Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia have no MSM ban on blood donation.  Many countries, such as Italy and South Africa, have adopted a more rational, evidence-based, and effective risk-based assessment instead of blanket bans which only serve to stigmatize a group of potential donors and limit the pool of donors at this critical juncture in public health.

Lastly, on March 26, 17 U.S. senators signed a letter to the FDA calling the policy “discriminatory,” “unfair” and “based on the perpetuation of inaccurate stereotypes.”

The FDA began its lifetime ban on gay and bi men in 1983 as a precaution during the HIV epidemic. In 2015, the FDA replaced the lifetime ban with a mandatory 12-month celibacy period for gay and bi men.

By reducing its ban from 12 months then to three, the FDA has acknowledged that its policies are needless. Continued social pressure could compel the agency to finally end its anti-gay and anti-bisexual policy once and for all, a potential silver lining to the ongoing pandemic.

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