SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- A blood shortage exacerbated by the COVID pandemic is adding support to an effort to change the FDA's longstanding ban on donations by sexually active gay men.
Since the pandemic began, the Vitalant donation site in San Francisco -- like blood banks across the country -- has been scrambling to find enough donors.
"Businesses aren't holding blood drives, schools aren't holding blood drives and we're having to cancel and reduce our number of blood drives for staffing issues," said Vitalant spokesperson Kevin Adler.
Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic sexually active gay men have been banned from giving blood.
"Basically, if you disclosed that you were a man who has sex with men, you were asked never to come in to donate again," said Dr. Brian Custer, Vitalant Institute's vice president of research.
In 2015, the ban was changed to involve only men who had gay sex within the previous 12 months. In April 2020, that was dropped to three months. Custer said that, since each donation now is individually tested for HIV, there isn't much danger of transmission in any case.
"I do think, with the current testing that is done, there isn't really a strong scientific rationale for a deferral, certainly of a year in length and, one could argue, even three months in length," he said.
So Vitalant is partnering in the so-called "ADVANCE study," gathering data about the actual risk of gay men donating blood. They're soliciting volunteers to answer questions about their sexual lifestyles and submit a small blood sample. Scientists believe it will reveal the kind of activity that actually poses a risk, rather than branding all gay men as dangerous.
"I think we understand a lot more about HIV and we don't have to use those kinds of blanket deferrals in the future," Dr. Custer said.
"And maybe, one day, it will be eliminated altogether and the ADVANCE study is kind of the first step in taking that step," said Adler.
Camden McMillan was giving blood at Vitalant on Sunday morning. She is proud to donate blood every eight weeks and said it would hurt to be told she couldn't.
"I would definitely be pretty sad," she said. "If I came in and, all of a sudden they said, 'oh, actually you can't donate anymore because of your sexual identity or your sexual preferences.'"
On Tuesday, the ADVANCE study will be opening a new operations site in Oakland to widen its reach to the East Bay. Anyone wishing to volunteer can learn more at: http://advancestudy.org
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