By Greg Hernandez
If a gay or bisexual man wants to donate blood in the United States today, he is not supposed to have had sex with another man for at least three months prior.
Paul Osborne had something to say about the policy.
“It’s entirely discriminatory—people need blood,” said the 51-year-old before walking into the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s McDonald/Wright Building for an appointment. “They should open it up to everyone so that everyone can give blood. Then, they can have a bigger supply for those who need it, particularly those with a less common blood type.”
In an effort to change the policy, the Center is one of eight LGBT centers nationwide that are each responsible for recruiting 250–300 gay and bi men between 18 to 39 years old for the ADVANCE (Assessing Donor Variability and New Concepts in Eligibility) study funded through a contract with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The pilot study is being launched by three of the nation’s largest blood centers: Vitalant, OneBlood, and the American Red Cross.
“Even though it’s taken the FDA and blood organizations this long, this is a really important moment,” pointed out the Center’s Director of Research Risa Flynn. “It’s important that everybody who is eligible step up and participate to give us the data we need.”
The study will evaluate alternatives to the FDA’s current blood donor policy which is less stringent than the 1985 complete ban on gay and bi men donating blood. At that time, nearly four decades ago, there was little science on the mechanisms of HIV transmission, and the AIDS epidemic was concentrated in the gay community.
“When the epidemic started, we knew so little about transmission,” said Flynn. “There was this very intense fear—health professionals were afraid to interact with patients who were infected—which carried over into the blood supply. People became infected with HIV through donated blood.”
The complete ban was lifted in December 2015. But, in April 2020, the policy was revised to require gay and bi men to abstain from sex for one year in order to donate blood although, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all donated blood products are now tested for HIV and other pathogens such as hepatitis C virus.
“From the perspective of the Center and our community, it communicated such intense stigma and discrimination,” said Flynn. “People want to donate their blood and do an act of public good—but still being told it’s not safe. They’re made to feel judged for who they are.”
The ADVANCE study is looking at eliminating the three-month time period deferral in favor of having an extended questionnaire for potential donors to assess any risk behavior.
“There already is a pretty substantive questionnaire that anybody donating blood has to complete,” explained Flynn. “The study’s idea is that there would just be some additional questions asked. We know a lot now about what kinds of behavior leads to the likeliness of HIV infection: sex without condoms, substance use, number of partners.”
Participants in the study will have a blood sample drawn for HIV testing and will answer different questions designed to determine individual HIV risk factors. The study will assess if the questions related to behavior are effective in distinguishing gay and bi men who have recently tested positive for HIV from those who have not. Its findings will help determine the next steps needed to modify the donor history questionnaire.
Data collected from the ADVANCE study will then be submitted to the FDA who will review and decide next steps.
For Center client Michael Campo, 62, it is incredulous to him that a loosened FDA policy still exists today.
“Discrimination is bad no matter what,” said Campo, who identifies as bisexual and lived through the AIDS pandemic. “Putting stipulations on one group is bad. I didn’t even know something like this was still possible in this day and age. It should be equal all the way around.”
To learn more about the ADVANCE study and to enroll, visit ADVANCEstudy.org