Study could change FDA blood donation policy for gay and bisexual men, but it needs more participants
The FDA still calls for a three-month wait after sex before gay and bi men can donate, but research taking place in Orlando and seven other cities could lead to more donors. That could save countless lives.
Blake Lynch says he’ll never forget the first time he tried to give blood. It was 2013, and Lynch was a nursing student. He was excited to donate in honor of a classmate with sickle cell anemia.
Lynch says he filled out the questionnaire that’s required of all donors. Shortly after, he got the news.
"They review it, they’re like, ‘Blake, I’m sorry, but you can’t donate blood,’ " Lynch says. "I was like, ‘Why can’t I donate?’ And they were like, ‘Well, I see you’re gay. So that means you’re banned for life.’
Although a lifetime ban is no longer in place like it was when Lynch in 2013, gay and bisexual men still have to wait three months between sex and blood donation, according to Food and Drug Administration recommendations.
That’s where the ADVANCE study comes in.
The purpose of ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability and New Concepts, is to determine whether a different donor deferral policy can be used at blood centers while maintaining the safety of the blood supply. For this to be possible, a change would need to be made to the donor history questionnaire,
The research is being done in Orlando and seven other cities nationally.
OneBlood blood bank and the LGBT Center in Orlando have teamed up to collect blood samples from 18- to 39-year-old men who have sex with men. The FDA will review these samples along with answers from a survey to see if a few quick questions can accurately predict someone’s risk for passing on certain sexually transmitted infections.
These questions could be added to the donor questionnaire replacing that three-month wait.
OneBlood’s senior vice president of communications, Susan Forbes, says a change in the FDA’s policy would automatically increase the number of donors in Florida and throughout the country.
Less than 10% of the population donates blood, when upwards of 40% are eligible, but don’t.
About 100 men have already enrolled in the ADVANCE study at the LGBT Center in Orlando. They fill out a simple survey, get their blood drawn and then return for a follow-up visit and get paid $85.
George Wallace, the center’s director, says participating in the study is about more than just the money. It’s about fighting decades-old medical stigma and discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
"This is not a special right. This is a basic right that we should be able to have to not be stigmatized, because HIV is not only a gay or bisexual men’s disease," Wallace says.
About 150 more men are needed in the Orlando-area study to change the FDA policy banning some LGBTQ people from the blood bank.
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who is working to more men enrolled in the study, says that along with making history the study could also save lives during and after emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic or the Pulse shooting.
"There were so many gay and bi men who wanted to give blood to save a life of someone who was clinging to life in a hospital here in Orlando, after the terrible shooting that were turned away," Guillermo Smith says, adding he would have participated in the study except for one detail.
"Because the cutoff (age) is 39, and I’m 40," he says. "So instead, what I’ve been doing is I’ve been reaching out to a lot of my friends and my chosen family, you know, lots of gay and bi men that I know in the area who are in the age range, including my own husband who participated in the trial."
Years after being turned away from giving blood, Lynch and his husband also participated in the ADVANCE study. Lynch says if the current FDA blood donation policy gets overturned, he already knows how they’re going to celebrate.
"I am scheduling a date with my husband Brett and we are both going out to donate blood," Lynch says.
When the study is done enrolling participants in March 2022, some 2,000 men will have enrolled throughout the country with the hopes of making history and saving lives.
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