Blood supply shortage sparks debate on whether donation guidelines impacting men who have sex with men should change

An ongoing blood shortage across the U.S. has sparked a debate on whether it's time to change donation guidelines so more people can donate blood.
Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 9:07 PM CST
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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) - An ongoing blood shortage across the U.S. has sparked a debate on whether it is time to change donation guidelines to allow more people to be able to donate blood.

The rule in question is one that says men who have sex with other men must abstain, a requirement that started when there was no reliable test for HIV more than 40 years ago.

Travis Ayers told TV9 he would donate blood at any chance he could back when he was in high school.

”My high school organized regular blood drives and then there were community ones that I would go to between those,” he mentioned. “So I was a donor the whole six times a year until I was sexually active and then I was booted.”

As a sexually active gay man, current FDA guidelines say Ayers cannot donate blood unless he abstains from having sex with another man for 90 days. Ayers said he does not believe these guidelines are fair towards men who have sex with men.

“”It is not actually screening for behaviors,” he added. “Heterosexual persons could be having even riskier behaviors and they are not getting screened out accordingly.”

Doctor Louis Katz, an infectious disease specialist and the chief medical officer at ImpactLife, has dedicated most of his career to studying HIV and treating HIV patients. He agreed with Ayers and said he does not believe the guidelines to be scientifically justifiable.

Katz said guidelines like this one have been in place since the 80s because of the HIV epidemic. However, he explained that, currently, they could detect whether someone has contracted HIV seven to ten days after exposure. He added there is work being done right now to change those guidelines.

”The argument is we should be able to identify men who have sex with men who are safe and men who have sex with men who are less safe,” he said.

According to Katz, that research began years ago but has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the idea is to be able to ask very specific questions about behaviors to identify men who have sex with men who are safe donors. He said this would turn the donation deferral from a sexual identification-based deferral to a behavior-based deferral.

”For example, if two men are in a mutually monogamous relationship with each other, neither one is infected with HIV, then they are not going to get infected with HIV, so would those be safe donors?,” Katz mentioned.

Doctor Katz said allowing men who have sex with men donate blood would alleviate the national blood shortage, but probably would not solve it. He added the change in guideline will most likely still take a couple more years. He said, though, there are signs of progress. Initially, when the HIV epidemic started, the deferral for men who had sex with men was indefinite. It was then reduced to a year of abstention and, in 2020, to two months.

Even though the FDA’s main priority is the safety of the blood supply, Katz said, at the end of the day, it is all about fairness.

“Does not hurt to have new donors, but beyond that, we think that the maintenance of the safe and available blood supply should be based on good science first and fairness, equality,” he commented.

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