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US relaxes gay blood donation restrictions amid coronavirus pandemic

The abstinence period for men who have sex with men has been reduced from 12 months to three.

By Tim Heap

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday (Thursday 2 April) announced a significant loosening of its recommendations for blood donations from gay and bisexual men.

Usually, a 12-month deferral period would be recommended for MSM (men who have sex with men) blood donors, but the FDA have reduced this to three months amidst a big drop in supply as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing restrictions it has resulted in.

The 12-month abstinence window was introduced in 2015 to replace the previous lifetime ban (introduced in 1983 during the AIDS epidemic) on blood donation by gay and bisexual men, but it was criticised as being discriminatory and antiquated.

The FDA has until now maintained that the year-long deferral period was necessary to ensure the safety of the bloody supply.

However, an FDA statement accompanying the new relaxed rules said that it had “concluded that recent policies regarding certain donor eligibility criteria can be modified without compromising the safety of the bloody supply.”

While the new recommendations are being put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, the FDA has said that they will remain once the situation returns to normal.

LGBTQ advocates have welcomed the change in blood donation rules, but vow to fight until the playing field is levelled entirely.

“LGBTQ Americans can hold their heads up today and know that our voices will always triumph over discrimination,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive of GLAAD, said in a statement.

“This is a victory for all of us who spoke out against the discriminatory ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.

“The FDA’s decision to lower the deferral period on men who have sex with men from 12 months to three months is a step towards being more in line with science, but remains imperfect.

“We will keep fighting until the deferral period is lifted and gay and bi men, and all LGBTQ people, are treated equal to others.”

The revisions made by the FDA also apply to women who have had sex with gay or bisexual men.

Around 2,700 blood drives – equalling around 86,000 blood donations – have been cancelled since the coronavirus began, the American Red Cross says.

Earlier this week, politicians including Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez signed a letter criticising the FDA for its lack of action in lowering the deferral period.

“This antiquated policy is not based on current science, stigmatises the LGBTQIA+ community, and undermines crucial efforts to increase the nation’s blood supply as the United States grapples with the coronavirus crisis,” the letter read.

The new restrictions mean that the US is now in line with the UK on its deferral period for gay and bisexual men.