Pritzker M1 Challenges FDA Blood Donor Policy in Op-Ed

For the second time in as many weeks, a first-year Pritzker student appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s opinion pages, this time with an op-ed challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s policy restricting blood donations from men who have had recent sexual contact with men.

Christian Carrier, who is a co-leader of the OUTPatient LGBTQ+ student group at Pritzker, penned the op-ed that was published Monday, bringing renewed attention to a policy he called “unethical and unfair to gay and bisexual men and, most importantly, to the millions of patients who desperately need blood transfusions.” The piece called for an end to the FDA's policy, in part to address the current blood shortage in the U.S.

Carrier’s op-ed was his final assignment in his first-year course "The American Healthcare System," directed by Dr. V. Ram Krishnamoorthi and Dr. Greg W. Ruhnke, and he decided to submit it for publication. Krishnamoorthi and student leaders in the Health Policy Interest Group decided to invite Dr. Shikha Jain from the University of Illinois at Chicago to lead an op-ed writing workshop, and Krishnamoorthi said the majority of the class chose op-ed formats for their final assignment. Fellow M1 Tony Liu also had his op-ed for the course, on the youth mental health crisis, published in the Tribune on Dec. 20.

“Before coming to Pritzker, I never really considered op-eds as a possible avenue of advocacy,” Carrier said. “But after having conversations with those around me I felt compelled to further discussions on this topic especially when our healthcare system is already under immense strain.”

The U.S. is currently facing a critical nationwide blood shortage, and a recent University of Chicago Medicine call for donors prompted Carrier to check if any donor criteria had changed.

“I looked up the eligibility requirements and was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that the Food and Drug Administration deferral policy remains outdated and homophobic,” Carrier wrote.

In response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the FDA in 1985 instituted a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who had sex with men after 1977, pointing to high rates of HIV infection in that population. At the time, testing for HIV in donated blood was not sufficiently reliable, and thousands of people had contracted HIV through blood transfusions. The policy was revised in 2015, allowing this group of men to donate only if they had abstained from sexual contact with other men for one year. It was revised again in April 2020 in response to critical blood shortages and reduced donation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with male donors now needing only wait three months after sexual contact with another man to donate blood.

Despite the reduced restrictions, critics of the policy contend it remains outdated, as modern HIV testing have accuracy rates of 99-100%. Carrier also juxtaposed the impact of the policy on gay and bisexual men, who may be in long-term, monogamous relationships with one partner, against the lack of restriction on heterosexual donors, who may have sexual contact with multiple women in a week and still donate blood.

Carrier concluded his op-ed by outlining the potentially massive increase in the blood supply created by updating the FDA policy and made a call for equality.

“Lifting this ban would not only increase the amount of blood available for those in need, but also would help reduce the social stigma on LGBTQ individuals,” Carrier wrote. “How can we expect full equality for LGBTQ Americans when we are seen as ‘less than’ in the eyes of the medical community and government?”