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FDA eases blood donation requirements for gay men amid "urgent" shortage

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday relaxed blood donation rules for gay men in response to the "urgent and immediate need for blood" due to the coronavirus pandemic. Men are now allowed to donate blood three months after having sex with another man, instead of after 12 months. 

"For male donors who would have been deferred for having sex with another man: the agency is changing the recommended deferral period from 12 months to 3 months," reads the agency's updated guidance. The FDA also relaxed donor requirements for females who have had sex with a man who had sex with another man, as well as for people with recent tattoos or piercings. Both restrictions have also been reduced from 12 months to 3 months.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges to the U.S. blood supply. Donor centers have experienced a dramatic reduction in donations due to the implementation of social distancing and the cancellation of blood drives," the FDA said. 

The FDA said the changes are "expected to remain in place" after the coronavirus has subsided. 

"Based on recently completed studies and epidemiologic data, the FDA has concluded that current policies regarding certain donor eligibility criteria can be modified without compromising the safety of the blood supply," it said.

"These changes are being put forth for immediate implementation and are expected to remain in place after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, with any appropriate changes based on comments we receive and our experience implementing the guidances."   

For over three decades, until just five years ago, a blanket ban barred any gay or bisexual man from donating blood. Federal health officials lifted the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men in 2015, but kept a year-long restriction. 

The lifetime ban was put in place during the early years of the AIDS crisis and was intended to protect the blood supply from what was a then little-understood disease. In 2006, the Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America's Blood Centers called the ban "medically and scientifically unwarranted."

Advances in HIV testing ensure that all U.S. blood donations are screened for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But there is a roughly 10-day window between initial infection and when the virus can be detected in the bloodstream. The American Red Cross estimates the risk of getting an HIV-positive blood donation is 1 in 1.5 million for U.S. patients. About 15.7 million blood donations are collected in the U.S. each year.

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