From 1983 until 2015, the FDA recommended blood establishments turn away all men who had had sex with men after 1977. The rule was put in place to prevent the population hardest hit by the AIDS crisis from unknowingly donating blood containing the virus, as it became clear that the blood-borne disease could be spread between men who had sex with one another.

As time went on, blood donations were screened more effectively, and many gay men began to practice safer sex, nonetheless the rule remained in place for decades.

The FDA lifetime ban ended in 2015 when it moved to a 12-month deferral period for men who have had sex with men within that time frame. In order to combat a shortage in the blood supply caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA relaxed restrictions in 2020 to include men who have not had sex with men for three months.

But as multiple blood banks plead with potential donors to give blood in emergency notices across the country, gay men who have had sexual activity of any sort are still not allowed to donate unless they have remained abstinent for the past three months.

“This continues to perpetuate the stereotype that the only people who get HIV are men who have sex with men, and that’s simply not true,” said Michael Poandl , development and communications coordinator at the Western North Carolina AIDS Project . 

“And it also promotes stigma that every man who does have sex with men is virtually HIV positive, simply because of that. And obviously that is not true either.”

HIV affects more than just gay men. While a 2018 CDC study found that 69 percent of new HIV diagnoses were among gay and bisexual men, Twenty-four percent were among heterosexual people and seven percent were among people who inject drugs.

A woman who is heterosexual who has had multiple sexual partners in the past three months is also at a high risk for STDs, said Kara McGee , a physician assistant at Duke Health who specializes in infectious diseases and is an associate professor at the Duke University School of Nursing.

“Everyone, regardless of gender, is in fact susceptible to HIV,” Poandl said.

Yet no directly compatible policy exists for sexually active heterosexuals.

And the methods of testing the blood supply have also changed, McGee said.

“The methods that are used to screen blood supply now are nearly 100 percent sensitive,” McGee said, “which is very different from the type of testing that they used years ago. And so that really narrows the window period from time of infection to the time the test would turn out positive.

“We’re in the middle of a critical blood shortage,” McGee explained. “It’s frustrating that we have these sort of blanket bans that keep a lot of people who are willing to donate.”


North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. This story has been edited for space restrictions. To read this article in its entirety, visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org. 

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