By Greg Hernandez
It is National Blood Donor Month and the nation’s blood supply has dipped to concerning levels.
But if you are a gay or bisexual man who has had sex with a man within the last three months, you aren’t allowed to help improve the situation by rolling up your sleeve and giving blood.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center is working to change that by helping to recruit gay and bi men between 18 and 39 years old for a pilot study evaluating the current blood donor deferral policy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Compensation is up to $85 for those who complete the study.
“There’s a huge blood shortage right now,” explains the Center’s Director of Research Risa Flynn. “If you’re a gay or bi man who is confronted by that, how frustrating it is to be told on the one hand, ‘This is a dire situation,’ and to be told at the same time, ‘Sorry, you can’t help.’”
“The only way that the policy is going to change is through participation in this research study which will demonstrate that there’s another option,” Flynn adds. “Participating is really an opportunity for people to feel empowered, to be able to know that they are in the long run contributing to the crisis of the blood shortage in this country.”
The Center is one of eight LGBT centers nationwide recruiting gay and bi men for the ADVANCE (Assessing Donor Variability and New Concepts in Eligibility) study funded through a contract with the FDA. The study was launched by three of the nation’s largest blood centers: Vitalant, OneBlood, and the American Red Cross.
The study seeks to evaluate alternatives to the FDA’s current blood donor policy that, while less stringent than the 1985 complete ban on gay and bi men donating blood, is still discriminatory, according to Center Executive Director Joe Hollendoner.
“We’re hopeful the FDA will reverse its homophobic policies and allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood in the same way they allow heterosexual individuals to donate blood irrespective of the number of sexual partners or the frequency in which they’ve had sex,” says Hollendoner, former CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “We know that blood donations can be properly screened for any diseases and that should continue to be a consistent practice. But gay men and bisexual men should not be excluded because they are perceived as being at increased risk.”
Nearly four decades ago when the ban was put into place, there was little science on the mechanisms of HIV transmission, and the AIDS epidemic was concentrated in the gay community.
The complete ban was lifted in December 2015. But, in April 2020, the policy was revised to require that gay and bi men abstain from sex for one year prior to donating 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 the hepatitis C virus.
The one-year of abstinence from sex has since been reduced to three months. The ADVANCE study is looking at eliminating that three-month time period in favor of having an extended questionnaire for potential donors to assess any risk behavior.
“The current policy continues to perpetuate the stigma and shame as it relates to gay and bisexual men and certainly doesn’t take into consideration the significant evolution of HIV prevention and care over the last 40 years,” Hollendoner points out.
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.
The study has been extended by the FDA to continue through July 2022 in order to meet enrollment goals of 2,000 men nationwide with 250–300 from the Los Angeles area.
To learn more about the ADVANCE study and to enroll, visit ADVANCEstudy.org