Doctors' Long Mission To Change Blood Donation Guidelines Comes To Fruition

Photo: Shari Small (WBZ)

DEDHAM, Mass. (WBZ NewsRadio) — Massachusetts Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Goldstein and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky embraced as they met up at the American Red Cross Blood Donation Center in Dedham Tuesday.

The pair gave blood side-by-side, marking the end of a years-long mission to help change the country's blood donation guidelines. The mission began in 2015 when Goldstein and Walensky worked together at Mass General Hospital. After a particularly hard day, Walensky asked Goldstein if he wanted to donate blood with her.

"I said, Robbie, let’s go donate blood, and then we had this stark, uncomfortable, sad moment where I could and he couldn’t," Walensky told WBZ NewsRadio.

Goldstein, who is gay, was not allowed to give blood at the time due to a longstanding national policy prohibiting gay and bisexual men from donating. The moment sparked a conversation between Goldstein and Walensky, who agreed that while the implementation of the blood donation ban during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s had saved countless lives, the policy had become outdated due to advancements in HIV/AIDS screening.

"As we were digging into the science, that policy, at the time, was not up to date," Walensky said.

They pledged to work together on getting the guidelines changed. In 2016, the pair, along with colleague Dr. Chana Sacks, published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that challenged the Food and Drug Administration's guidelines and suggested it adopt new rules that are based on an individual donor’s risk (how recently they have had sex with new or multiple partners) rather than their sexual orientation.

In 2020, the FDA updated the guidelines, saying men who have sex with men would be allowed to give blood if they abstained from sex with men for three months prior.

The pair's mission continued in 2021 when Walensky was appointed as the head of the CDC and brought Goldstein with her as her senior adviser. Alongside the FDA and other officials, they continued to review blood donation rules.

"We saw it as a policy that had a place in history, but now it just doesn’t fit with the science," Goldstein said. "We talked about it, we wrote about it, we met with the right people, and then it happened."

Finally, in May 2023, gender-neutral guidelines were put in place that opened blood donation to millions of gay and bisexual men. The American Red Cross adopted the guidelines in early August, clearing the way for Goldstein and Walensky to finally give blood together.

"I want to give back and now finally I can," said Goldstein. "You keep pushing, things can happen, and you can achieve really amazing policy change. We said that when the policy changes, we will come and donate together, and that’s why we’re here."

WBZ's Shari Small (@ShariSmallNews) reports.

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