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New blood donation rules ease restrictions on gay and bisexual men

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Red Cross is adopting new guidelines that will change who is eligible to donate blood.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And that's a big deal because the Red Cross contributes about 40% of the nation's blood supply. It's following the lead of the Food and Drug Administration, which altered long-standing rules about gay and bisexual men. For decades, the FDA said it was trying to protect the blood supply from HIV by restricting donations from gay and bisexual men. But now, instead of using sexual orientation, the agency is focusing on sexual behavior.

INSKEEP: Fenit Nirappil is a health reporter for The Washington Post, and he's covering this. Good morning. Welcome.

FENIT NIRAPPIL: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should just note, some people may be uncomfortable with the language in this story. And if so, it's going to last a little bit more than three minutes. But let's talk about what the rules are, because this is - this matters a lot. Who gets to donate blood now as compared to in the past?

NIRAPPIL: So the FDA used to have a lifetime ban that prevented gay men from donating blood. It's been relaxed a few times since then, but this latest change now allows monogamous gay and bisexual men to give blood for the first time. That's because this prohibition shifts away from whether you're a man who has sex with other men to asking more gender-neutral questions. The prohibition now applies to anyone who's had a new or multiple sexual partners in the last three months and if you had anal sex. This applies to people who are gay, straight, bi, men, women, nonbinary. And it also means that you're going to see heterosexuals who are banned from giving blood for the first time.

INSKEEP: Well, this is interesting. Is this then an argument that the old guidelines were not really the safest guidelines because it is the behavior that makes you vulnerable?

NIRAPPIL: The change in guidelines is really more about fairness, because even under these new guidelines, you're seeing people who are banned, even if they're not at elevated risks of HIV. But for decades, there have been complaints that gay men are treated as pariahs and that these standards that used to be in place were too broad. And you had people who were banned from giving blood even if they're also at low risk for HIV because of the way that they practice safe sex.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention, there are tests to detect HIV, I suppose. Why is that not sufficient or not deemed to be sufficient to keep the blood supply safe?

NIRAPPIL: Yes, we do have a highly sensitive screening measure that can detect HIV in blood within 11 to 33 days of infection. But that also means that it might miss an HIV infection in the early days. And so that's why you have this three-month standard, which is meant to have an extra buffer time.

INSKEEP: How big a deal is it that the Red Cross now would follow this change in FDA guidelines and alter their own guidelines, given the huge role they play in the nation's blood supply?

NIRAPPIL: So as you mentioned at the top, the Red Cross contributes a huge portion of the nation's blood supply. So there have been some independent blood centers that have already made this change, but this is considered a big deal because this is one of the biggest shifts that we've seen in decades. So you're going to have monogamous gay and bisexual men who can give blood for the first time because of the changes that you've seen this week.

INSKEEP: Fenit Nirappil of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

NIRAPPIL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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