Higgins Leads Effort Calling on FDA to End Discriminative Blood Donor Guidelines
Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-26) and fellow colleagues on the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus, Congressmembers Judy Chu and Jośe Serrano, are calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remove guidelines barring men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating plasma and other blood products.
In a letter to the FDA Commissioner, Reps. Higgins, Chu and Serrano write, “Outdated and arbitrary guidelines that discriminate against people attempting to donate plasma unnecessarily constrains its supply during a time when it is more important than ever to increase the donor pool. Plasma donation is an act of generosity that helps save lives, and FDA’s policies should be informed by the best science available to ensure that the maximum number of people who can donate safely can do so.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic doctors are using convalescent plasma – plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID – to treat people currently fighting COVID. Plasma is also regularly used as an effective tool to treat trauma, burns, hemophilia, and other clotting factor deficiencies.
“As a comprehensive cancer center where patients rely on donated blood products to help them endure their cancer treatments and rebuild strength, Roswell Park knows firsthand that the need for plasma is higher than ever. Thank you to Congressman Higgins for calling on the FDA to end this discriminatory rule,” says Candace S. Johnson, PhD, President and CEO of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, which operates an onsite Donor Center.
Blood product donations have decreased due to the ongoing pandemic and recent winter storms which have forced the cancellation of blood drives and outreach events. The demand for plasma far exceeds donations. On December 10, 2020 the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB), American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers issued a joint statement warning: “the country’s supply of COVID-19 convalescent plasma is depleting” and indicating the “demand for plasma has exceeded collections by between 1,000 and 1,500 units per day over the past month.”
In 1983, during the initial wave of the AIDS epidemic, the FDA implemented a policy which banned blood and plasma donations from gay and bisexual men. Since then, the FDA has revised the guideline twice, first changing the lifetime ban to a 12-month deferral from last same-sex sexual contact, and more recently changing it to a 3-month deferral. All donated blood and plasma is tested for HIV, hepatitis, COVID-19 and other infectious diseases before it is deemed acceptable and released to hospitals.
"While a three month ban is progress compared to the longstanding lifetime ban, it still remains discriminatory to gay and bisexual men and to many people of trans experience,” said Matthew Crehan Higgins, Associate Vice President, Specialty Care at Evergreen Health. “We know a great deal more now than was known in 1983 about HIV transmission, testing, treatment, and prevention and it is long past the time to move past these discriminatory practices."
Founder of Blood is Blood, Jordan Moll-Vigrass said, "The FDA continues to ignore the best science available resulting in discrimination which prevents many from receiving healthy life saving blood/plasma donations. This is a problem as it leaves many gay and bi-sexual men unwilling to ever donate as they face a double standard. No other one group of individuals have to remain celibate from sex for 3 months before they could donate. I call on the FDA to update its policies to reflect the best science available to ensure that the maximum number of people who can donate safely do so and finally end the years of stigma and discrimination.”
Congressman Higgins has long sought to end blood and plasma donor discrimination within the FDA’s guidelines. In December 2014 Higgins joined other Members of Congress in sending a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services urging action on changing the blood donation criteria. In 2015, Congressman Higgins joined “Blood is Blood” founder Jordan Moll Vigrass and Matthew Crehan Higgins, who previously served as Senior Director for the Pride Center of Western New York for a rally against the FDA’s ban. The following week the FDA issued a final guidance changing its previous lifetime ban to a new policy of a 12-month deferral. On World Blood Donor Day in 2016 Higgins joined Members on Capitol Hill to again argue the importance of moving away from a reliance on harmful stereotypes, and allow all healthy adults who wish to donate to do so.
On December 14th, the United Kingdom lifted its blanket restrictions on blood donations from MSM donors, implementing the same standards as those that exist for heterosexual donors.