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New Study Could Help Gay And Bisexual Men Donate Blood Equally

Image of a person pressing gauze to their arm after giving blood

As HIV and AIDS began spreading across the United States, pressure began mounting in 1983 to prohibit men who had sex with other men from donating blood. This led to a lifelong ban in 1986 on gay and bisexual men from donating blood.

At the time, organizations advocating for gay men worried that this ban on blood donations would stigmatize them further and boost homophobic attitudes, according to an analysis in the Milbank Quarterly.

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Decades passed before gay and bisexual men became eligible to donate blood again in 2015, but the FDA kept restrictions in place. In 2020, the FDA announced that it would change the restrictions on gay men once more, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, a paid study, called ADVANCE (Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility), is underway to determine whether blood centers could instead screen all people equally — if the FDA would agree to scrap these restrictions once it analyzes the data. Blood donation centers are hopeful for the change because the U.S. has a supply shortage.

WLRN’s Verónica Zaragovia spoke to Susan Forbes, OneBlood's senior vice president of corporate communications and public relations, about the study, which seeks qualifying gay and bi men to participate in eight regions around the U.S., including Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: Why should they sign up for this study? 

FORBES: What the participants get out of this is knowing that they are helping potentially move this policy. Less than 10 percent of the population donates blood. If there's [an] opportunity for more people to be able to donate blood, that's a positive move. The FDA is doing this pilot study and in participation with three of the nation's largest blood centers, which is OneBlood, Vitalant and the American Red Cross.

How have restrictions on gay and bisexual men changed since the 1980s?

In 2015, the policy was revised. The FDA moved to a one-year deferral policy for any man who has sex with another man. That stayed in place until 2020, when the FDA changed the policy one more time and it was updated to three-month deferral policy. So any man who had sex with a man within that three month time period would be deferred.

So along the way, you are seeing policy changing and moving in the right direction to enable more people to be able to donate under that specific policy.

And how might this study potentially change eligibility again? 

The study is looking at the three months and saying, rather than look at a time-based deferral, could we move to an individual risk assessment? So it's really a first step in determining whether a different donor deferral policy can be used at blood centers nationwide that would allow additional people into the donor pool, while maintaining the safety of the blood supply.

So what you’re saying is that gay and bisexual men wouldn’t have to wait three months since the last date of intercourse to donate blood?

Right. If it was to move in that direction, then a change would need to be made to the donor history questionnaire, which consists of a series of questions that all potential blood donors have to answer before donating.

What should people who get chosen for this study expect? 

To be able to participate in this study, you need to be a gay or bisexual man, 18 to 39 years of age, live in one of the eight cities that are participating in the study and you had to have had sex with another man within the past three months. And you come into the facility where we're conducting the study in each of these cities.

You go in there, you make an appointment online at advance study dot org, you'll fill out a short questionnaire, you'll have a blood sample drawn, and it will be tested for HIV and they'll answer some questions designed to determine individual HIV risk factors.

And that data is being collected and it will be submitted to the FDA who will review those findings and determine the next steps from there. You will come back a couple of weeks later for a second appointment to get the results of your blood work. We need about 2,000 to 2,500 participants throughout the eight cities where the ADVANCE study is taking place.

It’s a policy that has been in the limelight for many, many years. This is a moment. This is really that study that the blood centers have been waiting for, and the LGBTQ community has been waiting for. For people to be able to have that opportunity to participate in this, it’s a big deal.