Coronavirus-Related Change in FDA Blood Donor Policy Threatens Public Health Instead of Protecting It
April 13, 2020
On April 2nd, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an easing of restrictions on blood donors. Concern has been raised that there may be a shortage of donated blood due to the cancellation of blood drives as a result of current social distancing rules.
Political pressure, not medical necessity, may have driven the most significant of the changes, however—involving the “deferral” as blood donors of men who have sex with men (“MSM”). Since 2015, the FDA has recommended excluding as blood donors any man who had sex with another man in the last 12 months. That deferral period has now been reduced to three months since the last male-male sexual contact.
Until 2015, however, MSM were subject to a lifetime deferral, prohibiting men from giving blood if they have had sex with another man even once since 1977. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, it was discovered both that HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) could be transmitted via blood transfusions and that men who have sex with men are at extraordinarily high risk of being infected. The lifetime ban was imposed in 1985 and lasted for 30 years.
LGBT activists, however, lobbied vigorously for lifting the deferral because of the “stigma” it imposed on MSM (note: the restriction does not apply to women who have sex with women, as they are not at significantly elevated risk of HIV). Family Research Council was active in opposing the change to the lifetime deferral.
Despite the dramatic change from a lifetime deferral to a 12-month one, LGBT groups have continued to lobby for further easing of the restriction. Almost as soon as the coronavirus was declared a national emergency, they jumped to exploit the crisis as an opportunity to advance their agenda. GLAAD posted a petition demanding that the limit on donations by MSM be lifted altogether. Although an FDA spokesman told the Washington Blade on March 19 that the restriction remained in place, only two weeks later it was revised, “[a]fter weeks of pressure from GLAAD and others.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledge that “Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are the population most affected by HIV in the United States. In 2017, adult and adolescent gay and bisexual men made up 70% . . . [of] new HIV diagnoses in the United States (US) and dependent areas.” And this is despite the fact that men who have ever had sexual contact with men represent only about three percent of the population. Prior to removing the lifetime ban in 2015, the FDA noted that HIV prevalence among MSM is “60 times higher than the general population in the U.S., 800 times higher than first time blood donors and 8000 times higher than repeat blood donors.”
It’s not as though men who have sex with men are going to be the solution to any potential blood shortages anyway. Out of that 3 percent of the population, one must still subtract any who have had male-male sexual contact in the last three months, and subtract any of this high-risk population who have ever had a positive test for HIV. The remainder would be so tiny that it would hardly make a measurable impact on the blood supply—except for making it somewhat more dangerous.
The most troubling part of the FDA’s announcement was where it said, “These changes are being put forth for immediate implementation and are expected to remain in place after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.” It would be a tragic irony if a public health crisis cements in place a policy that threatens the public health instead of protecting it.