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ARUP now begins accepting blood donations from gay and bisexual men

Jul 19, 2023, 5:39 PM | Updated: Jul 20, 2023, 5:37 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Multiple members of the LGBTQ community on Wednesday were “extremely excited” to be able to donate blood, and thus save lives in a way that wasn’t available before, Dr. Waseem Anani said.

“The queer community has been known to be inclusive, respectful and all about love, and our donors have the same values and qualities, so they really make the ideal donor to come in and donate with us,” said Anani, medical director at ARUP Blood Services.

For the first time in about 30 years, gay and bisexual men may donate blood in Utah, as ARUP Blood Services updated its screening questions to match a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration decision.

Previously, the questions people were given before donating blood with ARUP included one directed specifically at gay or bisexual men — any men who had sex with men were excluded from donating.

Now, Anani explained, the questions do not consider gender orientation — they ask everyone the same questions, including whether they have been committed to no more than one partner for at least three months; and whether they have recently used pre-exposure prophylaxis medication, called PrEP, which can delay the detection of human immunodeficiency virus in screening tests.

“It’s been a little bit of an adjustment for sure, especially for some of our regular donors who are seeing these new questions and don’t understand why we’re now asking something that’s so personal when really it’s just making sure our entire blood supply is safe for everyone,” ARUP phlebotomist Destiny Mize said.

On May 11, the FDA announced it was easing restrictions on blood donations for men who have sex with men. The restrictions were put in place after HIV was first identified in the blood supply, but Anani said understanding of virus testing has come a long way since that time.

“Our blood supply is safer than it has ever been,” he said.

Anani said Tuesday was a landmark day for ARUP, as it was able to welcome donors who had previously not been eligible to donate. He said an estimated 30% to 35% of men who are gay and bisexual will now be eligible to donate, broadening the blood donor base in Salt Lake City.

A statement from ARUP said it will now focus on “behavior risk” rather than sexual orientation. The FDA believes that the change will maintain the same high level of safety for blood donations.

“ARUP Blood Services is pleased to announce that it is the first donor center in Utah, and one of the first in the nation, to adhere to and implement the new FDA guidelines. We are honored to share this great news and what it means for Utah, our hospitals and clinics, and the LGBTQIA+ community,” a statement from the Salt Lake organization said.

Dr. Ryan Metcalf, section chief for transfusion medicine at University of Utah Health, said patients every day need surgery and blood, and it is hard to predict the trauma and make sure there is enough blood to meet the needs.

“We are very excited about the … increased inclusivity for blood donors and our blood donor population,” he said.

Metcalf said during the pandemic there were severe blood shortages throughout the country, and as more people move to the area, the demand for blood donations will continue to increase.

“We need to keep up with that demand so that we can take care of our patients as best as we can. So I truly hope that these changes that we’re very excited about … will give us new donors, and energize blood donations and continue to meet our patient needs,” he said.

He said physicians consider a five-day supply optimal, and a two-day supply is critically low. On Wednesday, University of Utah Health had about a three-day supply of blood. Metcalf said the blood supply was lower than he was comfortable with, which often means collaborating with other centers to help patients.

“There’s a constant need, and we appreciate all the work of our team to make sure that we can meet our patient needs at the University of Utah,” he said.

Metcalf said the FDA has looked at the issue of blood donations by men who have sex with men carefully and determined it is safe. He said the blood supply is currently safe and is getting safer every day, as the ability to detect diseases like HIV improves.

Dr. Matt Luo, a resident physician at the University of Utah, said he thinks the change is a step in the right direction. He said it amends discriminatory languages and practices and creates a “patient-centered” approach instead of a “blanket ban.”

“Blood is always going to be in high demand. … Being able to safely amend the current guidelines in order to allow us to allow people to donate more blood is wonderful,” Luo said.

As a gay man, Luo said he thinks the guidelines have previously been discriminatory, although as a doctor he understands why they were necessary.

Luo said it is nice to not have to say, “I’m gay. I can’t donate blood.” The new regulations, he said, recognize that anyone can contract HIV and AIDS.

He said blood donation policies still discriminate against people in non-monogamous relationships and polyamorous relationships. Luo understands the purpose of the regulations; blood transfusion isn’t an area to take risks. But Luo said the end result is blood donation has been exclusionary.

“You can be proud of something and still want it to be better,” he added.

ARUP does not ask donors about sexual orientation, so the organization will not be able to tell how many more units are available due to this change; though, Anani said they want gay and bisexual men to feel like they are “part of our family” and can donate just like everyone else.

“It can be nerve-wracking, it can be uncomfortable to step into a space where you’ve previously not been welcome,” Luo pointed out.

In response to a question about whether this change should have happened sooner, Anani said, “We have our own personal feelings, but it’s important that we follow the science and we follow the letter of the law.”

He said this is a first step for inclusiveness, adding that, in some countries, gay and bisexual men have also been approved to donate plasma, which the FDA has not yet approved.

“This is only the first step, we have many more to come. It will take us some time, the FDA will review the safety profiles over time, so potentially years, but that means we still have more wins to come,” Anani said.

The medical care providers emphasized how important blood donations during the summer months are for Utah hospitals.

“During the summer, when everybody’s off on vacations, we don’t have school in session so we aren’t able to go to our usual blood drives,” Mize said.

Dr. Metcalf said it’s also a season when they see more injuries.

“We don’t know when traumas are going to come in,” he said. “It can be difficult to know how much we’re going to need.”

ARUP accepts walk-in potential donors or appointments can be made online.

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ARUP now begins accepting blood donations from gay and bisexual men