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Gay men banned from helping ease national blood shortage

"This has a chilling effect," says Health Imperatives CEO Julia Kehoe. "Policies like this actually worsen health outcomes."

The COVID pandemic has caused what the American Red Cross calls its worst blood shortage in over a decade.

But despite a national blood crisis, federal policy dating to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic mandates that gay and bisexual men can give blood only after abstaining from sex for three months.

Massachusetts is among several states demanding that the Food and Drug Administration end its 40-year ban on gay and bisexual blood donors.

Gay and bisexual men account for 66% of new HIV infections each year, with Black and Latino gay and bisexual men among the most affected, according to the CDC. The government is working to reduce new HIV infections by 75% by 2025.

The FDA policy prevents men already experiencing discrimination from talking to their healthcare providers and sexual partners, says Julia Kehoe, CEO of the nonprofit Health Imperatives organization. Health Imperatives works to reduce sexual and reproductive healthcare disparities on the Cape, South Coast and Islands by providing access to HIV and AIDS support.

Patrick Flanary spoke to Health Imperatives CEO Julia Kehoe about the policy, which she calls dangerous and discriminatory.

Patrick Flanary: I hear about all this demand for blood. But if you're a sexually active gay man, you're banned from donating it. Is it time to revise that policy?

Julia Kehoe, CEO, Health Imperatives: Absolutely. It's always been time to revise it, frankly, because it's always been discriminatory by definition, by banning an entire population. But right now there's absolutely no reason for it.

PF: Several states, including Massachusetts, are demanding that the FDA put an end to this policy. Julia, at one time, you advised policy development at the state level for Health and Human Services. Secretary Marylou Sudders recently signed a letter calling on the FDA commissioner to end the ban. Is the policy a matter of safety or discrimination at this point?

JK: Both. The vast majority of men who have sex with men do not have HIV. And we know that HIV is transmitted by behavior. And so what we need to look at is risky behaviors, not a particular population. Since the first ban was initiated 40 years ago, there have been incredible advances in both testing and prevention. And so now the testing that the FDA mandates for blood donations can pick it up within 11 days.

Policies like this actually worsen health outcomes because people have misconceptions about what it means, and it also makes younger people afraid to talk to their healthcare providers or their sexual partners. People need to know that men who have sex with men can have healthy lives. And whether they live with HIV or don't, I truly believe that policies that further stigmatize populations — particularly those who are impacted by other types of discrimination — are dangerous and lead to increased poor outcomes in other ways.

PF: How do we destigmatize this?

JK: I think we need to be open and, first of all, call out policies that are discriminatory when we see them and not just when it has an impact on other people.

PF: Do you know of any gay or bisexual men who have been turned away? And what are they telling your organization about that experience?

JK: I just spoke with someone on Friday who was really upset. He'd just gotten an email from the Red Cross saying there's a blood shortage and would he please donate. And he said, "Would I donate? I would love to but I'm not eligible." This has a chilling effect. One of the things that we're seeing now that is particularly disturbing is that young men really aren't as aware of the risks of HIV the way men were in the '80s and '90s — especially young men of color not knowing about all of the risks and the ability to have HIV prophylaxis.

PF: How likely is this ban to be overturned? Is the FDA going to do anything about it?

JK: I'm an eternal optimist. So I hope that this blood shortage brought attention to an issue that, once they review it, they realize that this policy is outdated and needs to be changed.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.