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National blood shortage sparks renewed call to lift restrictions on gay men to donate

'Why can't I be someone's hero?'
blood donation
Posted at 9:24 AM, Jan 18, 2022

MILWAUKEE — Last week the Red Cross announced a national blood shortage that could put patients at risk. The organization called the shortage a "crisis;" the worst it's seen in more than a decade.

According to a release, "in recent weeks, the Red Cross had less than a one-day supply of critical blood types and has had to limit blood product distributions to hospitals. At times, as much as one-quarter of hospital blood needs are not being met."

The Red Cross says the shortage is partly due to decreased donors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the need has also renewed a call to lift restrictions that prevent many gay and bisexual men from donating blood.

According to FDA policy, men who have sex with men have to remain celibate for three months before donating blood to prevent HIV transmission. That restriction was shortened from 12 months when the pandemic began in 2020.

But in the last week, national advocacy groups have been vocal about urging the FDA to change the policy. Twenty-two U.S. Senators sent a letter asking the FDA "to quickly act on the best available science and update its outdated and discriminatory blood donor deferral policies."

Brad Schlaikowski, the executive director of Courage MKE, said he's long been frustrated by the policy.

"I can donate my kidneys, I can donate my organs on my driver's license, but I cannot donate my blood because of who I love," Schlaikowski said. "It's not just the gay community that contracts HIV and AIDS. It's not just the gay community. Everyone's blood needs to be tested before it's given to someone else."

Schlaikowski already helps his community in many ways by supporting LGBTQ youth at the Courage MKE group home. But he wants to do more and said if he could, he'd donate blood every six weeks because his blood type is O-negative and in high demand.

"I see these tragic things happen across the country, like what happened (during the Waukesha Christmas parade attack)," Schlaikowski said. "People went to line up to donate blood, and the one thing that I can do that doesn't cost money is donate the blood that I have, but I can't."

The Red Cross and the American Medical Association have also previously urged the FDA to lift the restrictions. The Red Cross is currently conducting research, hoping it will help lead to changes in eligibility.

According to a study from UCLA's Williams Institute, lifting the restrictions on men who have sex with men could increase annual blood supply by two to four percent. The institute concludes that the resulting increase in donations could help save over one million lives.

"Why can't I be someone's hero? Someone else can be mine. Maybe someone else will be mine one day, and I don't get to return that favor," Schlaikowski said.

This story was originally published by Sarah McGrew on Scripps station TMJ4 in Milwaukee.