Not all of us can be frontline workers fighting COVID-19, but some of us can be low-key heroes during the pandemic . . by donating blood. Health authorities and blood banks are worried about the blood supply, because shelter-in-place has meant many fewer donors — in March there were 86,000 fewer blood donations in the US because of almost 2,700 canceled blood drives.
Despite the need for blood, there is a big group of potential donors that are discouraged from giving it: Men who have sex with men. “Because of an outdated policy, these men aren’t allowed to donate,” says Christopher Hall, MD, MS, AAHIVS, infectious disease specialist and Nurx Senior Medical Advisor.
This policy is a holdover from the 1980s at the start of the HIV epidemic, when people were infected with HIV from blood transfusions, before testing for the virus was vastly improved. “Now there are highly sensitive tests, in particular pooled nucleic acid tests, that can identify HIV in donated blood units, making it virtually impossible for HIV to slip into the blood supply,” says Dr. Hall.
“This restriction is completely unnecessary and discriminatory, given that blood banks are required to test blood donations for HIV and other infections,” said California State Senator Scott Wiener. Senator Weiner launched a campaign called “Give for a Gay,” encouraging men who have sex with men to nominate an eligible friend to donate on their behalf and use the hashtag #GiveForAGay, and for eligible allies to step up and donate. “Given the advancements in testing technology, these screenings are overwhelmingly accurate, incorporating a short 10-day window that ensures a donor who is unwittingly HIV-infected has enough virus present to be detected through testing. Yet despite the brief window-period allowance, the FDA previously required gay and bisexual men to be celibate for a full year – recently amended to three months. This is still not good enough,” stated Weiner.
In addition to the California lawmaker, on April 16 over 500 infectious diseases specialists, public health professionals, clinicians, and others spoke out by signing an open letter calling on FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee to eliminate “the scientifically outdated ban” on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.
The FDA’s revised policy is not only unnecessary, it’s stigmatizes gay men. “Women along with men who have sex with them get HIV too,” says Emily Rymland, DNP, FNP-C, Nurx Clinical Development Manager. “You could be a gay man on PrEP exclusively using condoms with an HIV-negative partner, and have no risk of HIV, versus a straight person who is having frequent risky sex. The gender of the people you have sex with says nothing about your individual HIV risk, and there are widespread public health consequences to not having enough blood available.”
Similarly, gay men are who have had COVID-19 and developed antibodies are currently barred from donating convalescent plasma, which is being used as an investigational treatment for people severely ill with COVID-19. Talk show host Andy Cohen, who recovered from COVID, drew attention to this short-sighted and discriminatory policy in April.
“Although studies are ongoing, there is a lot of interest in the potential for convalescent plasma to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients, and we shouldn’t be turning away anybody who is eligible to donate because of outdated rules, especially when a relatively few persons are available to donate” says Dr. Hall.
What You Can Do
If you are eligible to donate blood or plasma, and it is safe for you to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic, we encourage you to donate and share your good deed on social medial with the hashtag #GiveForAGay. You’ll draw attention to the need for change, and maybe save a life at the same time.
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