Student Newsroom

FDA moves to make blood donation easier for men who have sex with men


ImpactLife’s Urbana donation center helps to provide blood to nearby Carle Hospital. Updating the donation guidelines could help alleviate the blood shortages many hospitals face, blood bank organizers said. By Owen Henderson

URBANA — The Food and Drug Administration is accepting comments on its proposed changes to guidelines for blood donation by men who have sex with men and their partners.

In the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the FDA barred men who had sex with men from ever giving blood, and while those restrictions have relaxed in recent years, some still remain. 

Under the current guidelines, men who have sex with men can’t give blood if they’ve had sexual contact with another man in the past three months, which groups like the American Public Health Association have said is not based on current evidence.

Hunter Varnes, a senior emergency department technician at Carle Hospital in Urbana, said he agrees.

“I think the rule currently is rooted in homophobia, and there’s no true science behind it,” Varnes said.

The proposed policy would remove the time-based restriction and screen potential donors based on a questionnaire about their risk for HIV.

Those questions include whether a donor has had anal sex with more than one partner in the last three months and whether the donor is taking any HIV medications, including preventative drugs like PrEP that the Centers for Disease Control say drastically lower a person’s chances of contracting HIV.

“Half of me is concerned about this, due to more men who have sex with men getting on PrEP — which is great because we want to keep HIV rates low,” said Varnes, who is gay and takes PrEP. “But on the other hand, I understand why PrEP is not allowed, due to PrEP decreasing the viral load and it being difficult to detect HIV in the blood on PrEP.

“So that will be definitely the next battle”

Hospitals are in a constant shortage of blood supplies, said Amanda Ma, the vice president of the Blood Club at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

She said she’s optimistic that these changes could increase the number of donors at the blood drives her group organizes on campus.

“I’ve had people that have come up to us, really interested in donating blood but obviously can’t because of the previous guidelines,” Ma said. “And even we have people in the club that aren’t able to do so because of the guidelines.” 

However, public health messaging around the issue will need to be stronger than it has been in the past, she said. 

“Getting that information to them is not that easy,” Ma said. “No one’s just casually reading the FDA guidelines.”

Groups like the American Red Cross and the American Medical Association have long criticized the FDA over its policies regarding blood donation by men who have sex with men. 

Though blood banks have screened all donated blood for HIV for many years, the FDA only dropped its lifetime donation ban for men who have sex with men in 2015.

Instead, it switched to a requirement that men go a year without sexual contact with another man in order to donate, a rule which many considered to be a de facto ban. 

This was shortened again to a three-month waiting period in 2020.

When the organization announced the newest proposed changes in a press release, officials said the new policies were meant to be more “inclusive.”

“I’m grateful for it, but it’s a little ‘too little, too late.’ I don’t understand why it takes this long to update an antiquated policy,” said Nathan Langley, a University of Illinois senior who is unable to give blood under the current guidelines. 

“You’d think there’d be more of an effort to catch up with where science is, where common sense — if anything — is,” Langley said. “And it’s sad to see that we’re not there yet.”
The proposed changes are still under review and will be open for public comment on the FDA’s website until the end of March.