MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (01/17/2024) — January is National Blood Donor Month—a time to bring awareness to the critical need for blood donations at the time of year when the supply tends to be at its lowest. 

Claudia Cohn, MD, PhD, with the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview, explains the crucial need for blood donations, eligibility criteria for donors and recent changes to who can donate blood. 

Q: Why is it important for people to donate blood? 

Dr. Cohn: The need for a blood transfusion is constant. According to the American Red Cross, patients in the United States receive a blood transfusion every two seconds. Because blood has a limited shelf life, new blood donations are essential to keep hospitals well stocked. Without blood donations, hospitals would have to turn patients away or leave them untreated. We depend on the altruism and generosity of blood donors to share the gift of life.

Q: What are some of the causes of low blood donation levels?

Dr. Cohn: The blood supply is typically lower during the winter months as blood donations often decrease because of the holidays, travel schedules, inclement weather and illness. The need for blood is ongoing—victims of car accidents still arrive in emergency departments and cancer patients still require chemotherapy, for example, both of which use life-saving blood transfusions.

Q: What are the eligibility criteria for donating blood?

Dr. Cohn: There are criteria in place to protect both the donor and ensure the safety of the patient receiving the blood. Donors must be healthy and capable of donating blood without harming themselves. For instance, a donor’s hemoglobin must be more than 12.5 g/dL for females and more than 13 g/dL for males. If a donor’s hemoglobin is low, their donation could make them anemic. There are other criteria regarding the medications a donor uses, as well as recent vaccinations and travel history. Importantly, there are criteria to guard against potential bloodborne infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C. Anal sex and/or IV drug abuse are considered behaviors that raise the risk of transmission for these diseases, and therefore disqualify donors. However, it’s important to note that due to recent federal policy changes, donors who have had anal sex may qualify if they have not had new and/or multiple partners within the past three months.

Q: The Food and Drug Administration updated its policy last spring to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood. Why was this change made? 

Dr. Cohn: The FDA originally created a blanket ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM) as they were considered a high-risk group for HIV transmission. However, a gay or bisexual man in a monogamous relationship poses no greater risk to the blood supply than anyone else. The FDA’s Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility (ADVANCE) study confirmed the safety of individual risk assessment. This study found that anyone with a recent history of multiple sexual partners who engages in anal sex poses a risk to the blood supply, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that MSM pose no greater risk to the blood supply. It is wonderful that federal guidelines were updated to welcome gay and bisexual men—as well as women who have sex with MSM—as blood donors. 

Today, all blood donors are asked the same questions about their sexual activity and sexual behaviors, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. For more comprehensive information about the changes, you can visit the Association for the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies (AABB) at aabb.org

Q: What are you doing to advance research in the transfusion medicine field?

Dr. Cohn: My work currently focuses on improving the national infrastructure for sharing blood-related data that is clinically relevant for patients. This information can help reduce incompatible blood transfusions and will be particularly helpful for patients with chronic transfusion needs, such as those with sickle cell disease. 

Dr. Claudia Cohn is a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She is the medical director of the M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center Blood Bank and leads the AABB as the chief medical officer. Dr. Cohn conducts research in the field of transfusion medicine and focuses her efforts on two areas: patient blood management and platelet storage and utilization.


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