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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Minnesota seeks to end blood donation discrimination

Christopher Johns developed the practice of giving blood throughout his high school years.

But after graduating and coming out as homosexual, he was shocked to discover that blood banks would not accept donations from him and other sexually active gay men.

“It took me completely off surprise,” he remarked. “I didn’t get it. It raised more questions than it answered.

Now in his fourth year as a medical student at the University of Minnesota, Johns has spent a portion of his study to comprehending the prohibition and how eliminating the ban would impact the blood donations of other males with male sexual partners.

Together with his coworkers, he questioned over 600 males and discovered that the majority would give blood if the restriction were abolished. Currently, homosexual males must refrain from sexual activity for 90 days prior to becoming able to provide life-saving donations.

The study of Johns reveals that there is an untapped reservoir of donors at a time when blood banks have reported that blood supplies remain dangerously low — extending a crisis that started with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.

As companies and schools closed, and with them, the blood drives they held, blood donations decreased. Blood banks continued to accept donations at their facilities, but many prospective donors were hesitant to attend for fear of being exposed to COVID-19, particularly before to the development of vaccinations.

In January, the American Red Cross said that the blood scarcity was the worst it had been in a decade, dubbing the situation a “national blood crisis.”

Increasingly, medical organizations, advocacy groups, lawmakers, and state governments are urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sets blood donation standards, to abolish the exclusion of sexually active homosexual men and institute risk-based screening regardless of sexual orientation.

In a rare instance of public criticism of federal policy, the Minnesota Department of Health said that federal prohibitions regarding homosexual males and blood donations are discriminatory and unsupported by scientific evidence.

Doug Schultz, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health, said, “It’s an outmoded regulation that needs to be reconsidered, which is why we felt it was vital for Minnesota to join this growing campaign to abolish the exclusion.”

The FDA regulation is ostensibly intended to safeguard the nation’s blood supply from the HIV virus, but opponents argue that donor eligibility rules have not kept pace with advances in HIV blood testing, HIV treatment, and a better knowledge of the epidemiology of AIDS transmission.

Alex Sheldon, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, said, “It is founded on antiquated belief systems.” “Any policy controlling blood donations should be formulated without regard to membership in any organization, instead focusing on the individual risk potential.”

According to the study published in Transfusion Medicine Reviews, nine out of ten individuals polled by Johns and colleagues would be prepared to give blood if they did not have to wait three months to do so.

Despite the screening, around 8% of persons polled were able to donate blood despite not refraining from sexual activity in the preceding three months; this result has been repeated in other research. This raises issues regarding the screening’s usefulness. However, 11% of applicants were rejected throughout the screening procedure, an experience that several described as humiliating, demoralizing, or humiliating.

Additionally, the blood banking business wants amendments to the restriction, since its supply is primarily derived from volunteers. Donations enable the availability of blood for emergency and planned operations, as well as transfusions for patients with anemia, blood diseases, cancer treatments, and other conditions.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), and Tina Smith (D-Minnesota) have united in urging the FDA to alter its blood donation policy in response to a recent decline in blood donations, which has placed strain on the nation’s blood supply.

In North Carolina, the director of the state’s health and human services department was requested to give blood in January as part of an initiative to urge government officials to set a good example.

Secretary Kody Kinsley, who is homosexual, said, “I had to explain the long-standing exclusion for gay and bisexual males who had engaged in sexual actions to not give blood.” This was not the first time I had this talk at work.

A “very frightening experience” prompted him to take action, which ultimately led to an appeal to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, signed by health officials from the District of Columbia and nine states, including Minnesota.

Kinsley highlighted that forty years had passed since the FDA originally barred lesbian and bisexual blood donations. Notwithstanding advancements in HIV testing and knowledge of transmission and prevention, HIV has mostly remained a “cudgel” despite some minor adjustments.

“It continues to propagate the notion that being homosexual carries the same danger,” Kinsley said.

In recent years, however, the FDA has eased prohibitions on homosexual and bisexual males. A lifelong prohibition for males who have ever had sexual contact with another guy was eliminated in 2015 and replaced with a one-year lookback period. This was replaced by a 90-day timeframe in April 2020.

Several other nations, like Spain, Italy, England, Israel, and France, no longer prohibit homosexual males from donating blood. The United States continues to reject certain homosexual and bisexual men who want to give blood, including those in monogamous relationships and those who engage in safe sex, prompting more demands for reform.

The FDA is financing the ADVANCE project, which will evaluate the effectiveness of various donor screening protocols in preserving the blood supply. The enrollment period for the research, which is being done by three of the top blood banks in the country, has just ended.

However, it is unclear when findings will be published and if the FDA will abandon its blanket ban and adopt a risk-based method.

Regulators would have to determine if a new risk-based approach will deter even more prospective donors.

The normal screening procedure already includes hundreds of questions, some of which pertain to sexual partners, such as whether they have tested positive for HIV, used intravenous drugs, or are sex workers.

According to studies conducted by Canada’s health department, a risk-focused strategy requiring a few more invasive inquiries — about numerous partners and anal sex, for example — would result in the loss of a portion of donors.

Despite this, Canada recently revised its criteria in anticipation of a net increase.

Dr. Jerome Gorlin, medical director of Memorial Blood Centers in St. Paul, said, “By being more inclusive, you will attract more donors, which will counteract these losses.”

“I believe we’re making progress,” Gordin remarked. I believe it is a matter of time and validation to determine which questions are the most beneficial.

Johns believes that homosexual men will be able to give blood without limitations by the time he graduates from medical school.

“My significant other and I are in a monogamous relationship, and I’m hoping that by the time I graduate in eight to nine months, we’ll have something in the works,” he said. “I believe it is crucial to give back to the community, now more than ever due to the severe blood scarcity.”

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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