Written by David Rosene, MPH candidate at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and Summer Pediatric Research in Global Health Translation (SPRIGHT) Scholar in the 2022 IPH Summer Research Program
As a student mentee taking part in the Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track, I am working with Shanti Parikh, PhD. Her research works to further understand how people living with HIV navigate the COVID-19 pandemic through qualitative personal interviews. Results are still preliminary and ongoing.
Reflecting on this summer experience, one of the ways in which I have noticed that the COVID-19 pandemic and the HIV epidemic have crashed into each other, is how the United States has recently handled its blood supply. In a state of emergency, the American Red Cross declared its first ever blood shortage crisis in January 2022 due to a decrease in blood donations because of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Yet during this time, United States regulations held onto an FDA policy that was instated in 1983: the gay blood ban.
This ban for gay men donating blood was established two years before HIV diagnostic testing was widely available in 1985, and during a time when HIV stigma towards the LGBTQ+ community was elevated. In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule changed from a lifetime ban on gay men to a three-month deferral from the last time a gay man was sexually active. Though changes have been made, the HIV stigma remains for the LGBTQ+ community. What if the behavior was safe and with a longtime partner? What about risky heterosexual behavior? It is hurtful to many knowing these rules only apply to homosexual relationships. The FDA’s message remains clear: sexually active, homosexual men are prone to HIV infection regardless of safety measures.
A lot has changed in two years with rules and regulations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, so one can imagine how outdated a rule from 40 years ago could now be on the HIV epidemic. Current HIV testing has proven accurate. In fact, the residual risk of the test failing to identify HIV in a unit of blood is one in every 2.3 million units of blood. The Red Cross website “recognizes the hurt this policy has caused to many in the LGBTQ+ community and believes blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation.” The forms of eligibility referred to are individual risk assessments to determine if a person’s behavior is more prone to HIV infection, regardless of sexual orientation. Countries that have implemented these new measures during the COVID-19 pandemic include Canada and the United Kingdom. It is my opinion that the United States should do the same.
This ban only applies to homosexual men, who are just a part of the LGBTQ+ community (e.g., gay men, bisexual men, men who have sex with men), but it has also prevented the community from mobilizing to host blood drives together—something that is much needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. End the gay blood ban. Let LGBTQ+ blood drives happen. I’ve been waiting to donate blood for years.