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FDA proposes easing restrictions on blood donations, seeks public comment

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Gay and bisexual men have long faced restrictions in donating blood. Those prohibitions have been criticized as unnecessary and discriminatory. Well, today the Food and Drug Administration proposed new rules for who can donate blood. NPR's Rob Stein is with us to explain all. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the current restrictions in place are what exactly?

STEIN: The restrictions date back to the early days of the AIDS pandemic and were designed to protect the blood supply from HIV. Originally, gay and bisexual men were completely barred from donating blood. The FDA has been relaxing that ban over time, but men who had sex with another man in the last three months have still been prohibited from donating. Advocates for the LGBTQ community, as well as blood banks and leading medical groups, have called the policy outdated and stigmatizing.

KELLY: Outdated and stigmatizing. So what is the FDA proposing instead?

STEIN: The FDA wants to implement new rules that focus on behavior instead of gender and sexual identity. Under the new rules, anyone who says they have had a new sexual partner or multiple sexual partners and have had anal sex in the last three months would be prohibited from donating. That's because HIV is spread more easily through anal sex than other kinds of sexual contact. So this proposal means for the first time, even some women could be prohibited from donating, but monogamous gay and bisexual men would be allowed to donate for the first time in decades. Here's how Dr. Peter Marks from the FDA described the change during a briefing today.

PETER MARKS: We are moving now to an inclusive policy for blood donation that's as inclusive as it can be that we will continue to work to try to make sure that we have policies that allow everyone who wants to donate blood to be able to donate blood within what the science allows to make sure that the blood supply remains safe.

STEIN: Sex workers and intravenous drug users would still be prohibited from donating, as would people who have tested positive for HIV or are taking medication to prevent HIV infection.

KELLY: And what kind of reaction has there been to this?

STEIN: You know, it's been pretty positive from advocates, medical groups and blood banks. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem of blood shortages. Here's Kate Fry from America's Blood Centers.

KATE FRY: The blood community is very excited about the proposed changes. We have advocated for a decade now for a move to an individual risk assessment model, so this is very welcome by blood centers across the country.

STEIN: She stressed that all donated blood is carefully screened for HIV and that testing has improved dramatically to ensure the safety of the blood supply.

KELLY: Although you just told me that this ban was originally put in place to try to protect the blood supply from HIV, is there any concern about this move from a health point of view?

STEIN: Well, most of the experts say that it seems reasonable and the blood supply will still be safe, but there's some advocates that are saying that the changes don't go far enough. They say some of the remaining restrictions are still unnecessary and homophobic, such as the prohibition against people taking medication called PrEP to reduce the risk for catching HIV. Here's Tony Morrison from the group GLAAD.

TONY MORRISON: When we limit and defer people who are being proactive in their sexual health, that stigmatizes them. The misconception is that people on PrEP are more promiscuous or that they have a higher risk of HIV infection. And that's, you know, categorically false.

STEIN: So his group will continue to lobby the FDA to further ease restrictions.

KELLY: And briefly, Rob, what's the timeline on this?

STEIN: The proposed changes will be open for public comment for 60 days. The FDA will then issue a final rule probably later this year, so monogamous gay men could start donating blood again for the first time in decades sometime in 2023.

KELLY: Sometime this year. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you.

STEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "CONCRETE (FEAT. WESTSIDE GUNN AND TERMANOLOGY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.