As the Food and Drug Administration expands eligibility for male blood donors who have sex with men, Chicagoland hospitals and blood banks hope the local donor pool will grow.
The FDA announced draft guidelines Friday that would eliminate a mandatory three-month abstinence period before gay and bisexual men donate blood. Instead, all potential donors will fill out a questionnaire about recent sexual behavior.
The need for blood donation in Chicago is constant, said Geoffrey Wool, Medical Director of UChicago Medicine’s Blood Donation Center.
“Our overall goal is a safe and robust blood supply for UChicago Medicine patients and those nationwide,” Wool said. “We believe today’s announcement is a positive step in that direction.”
The proposal is based on an FDA study of 1,600 gay and bisexual men, the Associated Press reported. The survey measured sexual behavior questionnaires against the current abstinence rule.
Both were found effective in preventing HIV transmission through donated blood.
Chicagoland area blood banks and hospitals have known a change could be coming as the FDA pursued their study, said Glenn Ramsey, medical director of the blood bank at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
In hospitals like Northwestern Memorial, donor blood is necessary in organ transplants, heart and spine surgery, and emergency treatment for traumatic injuries. It’s also part of treating cancer, sickle cell anemia and other long-term conditions.
Over the last year, shortages of type O blood have forced Northwestern Medicine to alter patients’ care plans. Surgeons began to check with the blood bank before accepting organs for transplant, Ramsey said.
“While we never postponed care or postponed surgery, it was definitely a major concern for our blood bank and for the hospital,” Ramsey said.
Nonprofit blood centers across the country have been unanimous in pushing for the change, said ImpactLife vice president Amanda Hess. ImpactLife provides donor blood to hospitals in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin.
“As an industry, we understand that the current deferral is not gender inclusive and has been seen as discriminatory,” Hess said. “We have a lot to learn.”
Gay and bisexual men won’t be able to give blood right away, Hess said. The FDA will collect feedback from blood banks nationwide before releasing a final version of the new guidelines.
The University of Chicago Medical Center expects to be able to implement new donor rules in about six months, Wool said.
Tim Wang, director of advocacy at Howard Brown Health, said he hopes the new eligibility survey will account for queer men who have multiple sexual partners or take the HIV prevention drug PrEP, but remain low-risk for HIV.
“The need for a robust blood supply is paramount and we should not be turning away any qualified donors,” Wang said.
Gay and bisexual men in America were banned from giving blood at all starting in the 1980s. The FDA revised its protocol in 2015 to allow donation after one year of abstinence, then shortened it again to three months in 2020.
Gerald Harmon, a former president of the American Medical Association, published a letter in January 2022 calling abstinence periods discriminatory. When restrictions were enacted, HIV transmission was poorly understood, he wrote.
Friday’s update is a step in the right direction, said current AMA president Jack Resneck Jr.
“The AMA relentlessly advocates for eliminating public policies that do not align with scientific evidence and best ethical practices, which is why we have urged the FDA to use rational, scientifically-based deferral periods,” Resneck said.
While there’s no way to know exactly how many new donors the policy change will bring in,gay and bisexual men across Chicagoland have expressed interest in donating blood in the past, Ramsey said.
“When donors have been told they’ve been deferred, it becomes a huge issue for recruitment, for blood banks to reach out to them again and say, ‘you’re eligible now,’” Ramsey said.
Other donor restrictions lifted earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the donor pool locally, said Hess of ImpactLife.
While Hess hopes Friday’s announcement will do the same, blood banks will have to work to re-engage members of the LGBTQ+ community, she said.
“We have to acknowledge that, in general, we have to regain the trust of the community that this outdated role has impacted,” Hess said. “That will take time, and we have to continue to educate the general public.”