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Over 500 medical experts sign letter calling for end to US gay blood ban

Over 500 medical experts sign letter calling for end to US gay blood ban

  • The US has reduced the wait period for gay men giving blood but medical professionals want the ‘unscientific’ ban to go.
A sheriff donates blood in Lynchburg, United States.

Over 500 medical professionals have signed a letter calling on the US to scrap the ban on gay and bi men giving blood.

It comes after US Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an urgent call for blood donations during the COVID-19 crisis.

Moreover, plasma from people who survive the virus may be effective in treating other patients. But because plasma is a blood product, it is also included in the ban.

Until 2 April, gay and bi men had to wait 12 months after the last time they had gay sex before donating blood.

Then, with blood stocks under pressure due to the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reduced that wait period to three months.

The same rules also apply to women who have had sex with gay or bi men.

Risk-based screening

However medical professionals say the three-month wait is still too long.

In the open letter, they ‘call on the FDA to reverse its unscientific and discriminatory ban against men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood in favor of risk-based screening’.

Risk-based screening means asking about people’s behavior and if they are having risky sex, rather than excluding all gay and bi men.

The letter also notes that ‘the FDA’s recent decision to shorten the prohibition window to three months is a step in the right direction, [but] it does not go far enough in reversing the unscientific ban’.

The letter includes signatories from top-tier hospitals and universities. Professionals from Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins, Columbia University, Duke University, Mount Sinai Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and New York Presbyterian Hospital have all signed. 

Gay and bi blood could save a million lives

Many countries introduced lifetime bans on gay and bi men giving blood at the height of the AIDS pandemic. But now HIV transmission rates are falling among gay and bi men. Testing, treatment and HIV prevention drug PrEP have all reduced the risks.

Moreover, leading medical organizations have debunked the ban on blood donations for years. The American Public Health Association has criticized the current ban. It says it ‘is not based in science but appears to be modelled after other countries’ choices and fears’. 

Meanwhile The American Red Cross says ‘blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation’.

After the FDA reduced the wait period to three months, the American Medical Association also called on them to get rid of the special rules for gay and bi men. They want blood donation based on ‘a person’s individual risk’ rather than banning groups.

A 2014 study by the Williams Institute estimated that if the ban were to be lifted, an additional 360,000 men would likely donate. That could help save the lives of more than a million people.

Equal treatment

LGBT+ organization GLAAD has spearheaded the campaign to lift the ban. Its president Sarah Kate Ellis said:

‘We will keep fighting until the deferral period is lifted and gay and bi men, and all LGBTQ people, are treated equal to others.’

Her words reflect those of campaigners in Australia. Like the FDA, Australia’s Lifeblood service is now moving to a three-month wait, rather than 12 months. But campaigners there agree with those in the US who say that no longer makes sense.

GLAAD has also been running a petition calling for the FDA to change its policy. Over 23,000 people have signed, including US Senators Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren.

Celebrities have also backed the petition, including Sam Smith, Chasten Buttigieg, Michelle Visage, Margaret Cho and Nico Tortorella.

At the moment countries including Spain, South Africa, Italy, Russia and Mexico allow gay and bi men to donate blood without a waiting period.

Meanwhile some other countries only ask for a three month wait after sex. They include the UK, Canada and now the US after the FDA decision on 2 April.

However some otherwise fairly LGBT+ friendly countries still have a one-year wait period after sex for gay and bi men. They include Belgium, Ireland and Malta.

Finally, Austria, Malaysia and Greece are among the countries which impose a lifetime ban on gay and bi men’s blood.