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The FDA considers easing restrictions on blood donations by gay and bisexual men

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Food and Drug Administration is considering easing restrictions on blood donations by men who have sex with men. The move is aimed at addressing criticism that the current policy is discriminatory while also helping to alleviate a nationwide blood shortage. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering the story. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So what are the current restrictions on men who have sex with men giving blood, and why were they put in place?

STEIN: These restrictions date back to the early days of the AIDS epidemic and were designed to protect the blood supply from the AIDS virus. Originally, gay and bisexual men were completely prohibited from donating blood out of fears they would contaminate the blood supply with HIV. But over the years, as testing improved and the understanding of the epidemic has evolved, these restrictions have gradually been eased. In 2015, the FDA lifted the total ban on blood donations by gay and bisexual men and instead said they could donate as long as they hadn't had sexual contact with other men for at least a year. When the pandemic caused a blood shortage in 2020, the FDA shortened that to three months. But all this has long been criticized as unnecessary, counterproductive and discriminatory, and now the agency says it's reassessing the current policy.

SHAPIRO: And what's the proposal for the new policy?

STEIN: You know, NPR has learned that the new policy under consideration would allow anyone to donate regardless of their gender and sexual identity as long as they haven't engaged in risky sexual behavior in the past three months. That would include having had anal sex or new or multiple partners, injecting drugs or having engaged in sex work. This would bring the U.S. blood donation policy more in line with policies in other countries like, you know, Canada.

SHAPIRO: How would this policy actually work? Like, what would implementation look like?

STEIN: Yeah, right. Anyone who wants to donate blood would first have to answer a new questionnaire designed to screen out risky donors. This questionnaire would be based on the results of a study of about 1,600 gay and bisexual men that was designed to develop a set of screening questions that would identify potential donors who are most likely to be infected with HIV. The FDA says it's reviewing the results of that study as it works out the exact details of the new policy to make sure it encourages as much donation as possible while also ensuring the safety of the blood supply. Blood banks already routinely screen donated blood for HIV.

SHAPIRO: So what's the reaction been to this?

STEIN: You know, it's been pretty positive so far. This is something that many groups have been pushing for for years, including the American Medical Association, the American Red Cross and advocates for the LGBTQ community. Here's Tony Morrison from the group GLAAD, which has long criticized the current policy.

TONY MORRISON: It's a discriminatory policy that assumes that HIV is a gay disease, and it is very much not. This is what we have been advocating for for many, many years.

STEIN: That said, he says his group is waiting for more details to make sure the new policy goes far enough. In the meantime, infectious disease experts I talked to are welcoming the change. Here's Dr. Bruce Walker at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

BRUCE WALKER: I think one could even make an argument that we'll be in a safer situation if individual risk is assessed because that's not done to the degree that it could be done right now to identify people that might slip through.

STEIN: The agency is expected to formally propose the new guidelines sometime in the next few months, and then it would gather public comment and issue a final new policy sometime later next year.

SHAPIRO: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks.

STEIN: You bet, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF DONNIE TRUMPET AND THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT SONG, "PASS THE VIBES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.