Making Blood Donation More Inclusive

Ayako Miyashita Ochoa of the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty spoke to ABC News about the lifting of restrictions that had prevented gay and bisexual men from donating blood. The strictest U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules, dating to the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, were based not on an individual’s risk but on belonging to a specific group. These policies were “incredibly blunt” and furthered stigma and discrimination, Miyashita Ochoa said. Now, a single risk-assessment tool that includes questions about sexual health is used for all would-be donors. While some may feel uncomfortable answering questions about sexual activity, “these questionnaires are intended to keep our blood supply safe,” Miyashita Ochoa said, adding that the rule changes promise to reduce stigma and encourage more people to donate. “I think that we are moving to a place where our policies are reflecting better the science and certainly our expectations as a society to not discriminate,” she said.


Tapping Into the Inner Strength of Black Girls Empowering children instead of focusing on their struggles will lead to healthier choices, says Luskin Lecturer Ijeoma Opara

By Mary Braswell

“People out there expect you to fail. Prove the haters wrong. You know I’m here for you always.”

These words from a father to his young daughter — consistently encouraging her to finish school, stay away from drugs and make a good name for herself — helped her rise above the damaging stereotypes she faced as a Black girl growing up in America.

The New Jersey teen’s story was one of many shared by Yale University scholar Ijeoma Opara, who came to UCLA on Oct. 19 to deliver her message that harnessing the inner strengths of children of color is not just possible but imperative.

Opara, the first UCLA Luskin Lecturer of the 2023-24 academic year, conducts research focused on the well-being of Black girls, who may face multiple layers of stress because of their race, gender, class and age.

The conversation between father and daughter emerged in a survey Opara led of 200 girls from around the country, most in their mid-teens. With surprising frankness, they spoke of how they view themselves in the world, and how they struggle to protect their health and mental health in the face of harmful stereotypes.

“They were very aware that they were not loved by society,” said Opara, who directs the Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab at Yale.

“They understood, too, that society always assumed they were doing something bad. … They’re internalizing all the things that adults are saying about them, all the images they’re seeing.”

Some of the girls wondered how they could possibly thrive in a world that assumed they were angry, aggressive, into drugs and alcohol, or sexually permissive.

‘It’s not about us saving these children, right? They don’t necessarily need to be saved. They need to be empowered.’  — Ijeoma Opara of Yale University

“We cannot keep looking at Black children as if they are criminals instead of harnessing their strengths,” Opara said.

“It’s not about us saving these children, right? They don’t necessarily need to be saved. They need to be empowered.”

Opara was moved to study the unique experience of Black girls in high-risk surroundings because, she says, “I was one of them.”

Growing up in a part of New Jersey where violence and drug use were common, she saw many friends choose unhealthy paths. Later, as a social worker in New York City helping youths caught up in the criminal justice system, she came face to face with Black girls who had simply given up hope.

But she wondered, “What about girls like me and the other girls that I run into who are thriving in these environments? Why aren’t we talking about them, learning from them?”

On her academic journey, as she earned a PhD as well as master’s degrees in social welfare and public health, Opara set out to connect with these girls. She wanted to hear what factors led to their strong self-esteem and how their experiences could help others.

The common denominators, her research has found, include a strong sense of ethnic pride, a community that has their back and the belief that they have some control over their destinies.

Among girls who demonstrate a high level of resilience and self-assurance, the public health ramifications are striking, she said, with many far better equipped to avoid substance abuse and sexually transmitted infections.

For those who’ve already fallen into dangerous behaviors, these strategies can still provide a lifeline. Opara shared the story of Sheila, who by age 15 had been involved with robberies, attempted murder and kidnapping. Sheila had spent time on Rikers Island.

“She had no hope in the future. She thought she would be dead by 19 years old,” said Opara, who was assigned to Sheila’s case when she was a social worker.

With Opara’s help, Sheila came to “feel heard, feel like a teenager, feel like a human” and eventually turned her life around. She is now attending graduate school and volunteering as a youth advocate for a substance use prevention program.

“Sheila is the reason that I do the work that I do,” Opara said.

In her current research, Opara’s top priority is elevating the voices of young people of color. She has opened up opportunities for Black girls by offering internships in her lab and hosting tours of Yale to show that higher education is within their reach.

Her signature Dreamer Girls Project is a “safe space for Black girls that infuses elements of ethnic identity, of empowerment, of pride, of sisterhood,” Opara said, and its youth advisory board, a small working group of budding researchers, helps shape and administer her studies.

During her visit to UCLA, Opara met one-on-one with UCLA Luskin doctoral students and appeared at a virtual meeting of the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV’s Black Caucus. The commission was a co-sponsor of the visit, along with the UCLA California HIV/AIDS Policy Research Center and the Center for HIV Identification, Prevention and Treatment Services at UCLA.

Following Opara’s Luskin Lecture at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute, Ayako Miyashita Ochoa of the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty moderated a conversation that delved into the most effective ways to strengthen connections among social workers in the field, the research community and those in position to make real policy reforms.

Opara said the guiding principle is keeping the focus on the strengths of children instead of their deficits.

“It’s up to us as adult allies to support them, to show them that they that if they fail, if they make a mistake, we’ll be right there, judgment-free, to support them and lift them up.”

Luskin Lecture by Ijeoma Opara

Lifting of Blood Donation Ban Will Save Lives, Address Stigma

Ayako Miyashita Ochoa of the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty wrote an article for The Conversation on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s easing of restrictions on blood donation by gay and bisexual men. The last documented HIV transmission through a U.S. donor’s blood occurred nearly 15 years ago, Miyashita Ochoa wrote. While precautions around HIV exposure were reasonable in the 1980s, “the science has changed,” she said. The lifting of the ban will lead to an estimated 2% to 4% increase in the blood supply, potentially saving more than a million lives. She added, “Removing gender and sexual orientation from the risk assessment for blood donation will take the U.S. one step further in addressing stigma and discrimination against men who have sex with men.” Miyashita Ochoa also discussed the issue on WOSU’s “All Sides” (beginning at minute 37), commenting that COVID-19-era blood shortages spurred the move toward science-based policies that ensure that supplies are safe and sufficient for the nation’s health needs.


$1.4 Million Grant to Bolster ‘Powerful Collective’ Advocating for BIPOC Transgender Sex Workers

UCLA’s Hub for Health Intervention, Policy and Practice (HHIPP) has been awarded a $1.4 million grant to strengthen and support its efforts to unite sex workers and their advocates with academic investigators, health care providers and social services agencies. Over a four-year period, the grant will benefit research and community-based programming for Sex Work LEARN (Lived Experience Affirming Research Network), a multisector alliance that does not presume sex work is a problem to be solved. The project will focus on transgender women with sex work experience who identify as Black, indigenous or other persons of color. Principal investigator Ayako Miyashita Ochoa, an adjunct professor and co-director of HHIPP, said collaborators will include Social Welfare doctoral students Kimberly Fuentes and Vanessa Warri, and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. Miyashita Ochoa said she is “thrilled to be working with” co-principal investigators Sophia Zamudio-Haas of UC San Francisco and Bamby Salcedo, a leader in the transgender rights movement and president of TransLatin@ Coalition. Other community partners are the Unique Woman’s Coalition and Sex Workers Outreach Project Los Angeles (SWOP LA). “I couldn’t be more proud of our research group and am so appreciative that UCLA Luskin will now serve as a home for this powerful collective,” Miyashita Ochoa said. Funding is from the California HIV/AIDS Research Program, which is awarding similar grants this year to four other research projects in California that center the voices of people affected by HIV.


Miyashita Ochoa on Outdated Blood Donation Restrictions

Social Welfare faculty member Ayako Miyashita Ochoa spoke to ABC News about prospects that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will update its blood donation policy, which restricts participation by some members of the LGBTQ community. The policy has evolved over the years. In 1985, the FDA banned all donations from men who have sex with men in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Today, donations are accepted from gay and bisexual men who abstain from sex for 90 days. If a policy change is implemented, gay and bisexual men in monogamous relationships will be able to donate without abstaining from sex. Implementing the change would help battle stigma and address future blood shortages. Research by Miyashita Ochoa found that eliminating the ban could increase the donation supply by 2% to 4%, bringing in more than 615,000 pints of blood every year. “That isn’t a small amount,” she said. “That 2 to 4% count is roughly calculated to a million lives saved.”


Miyashita Ochoa on Decriminalization of Sex Work

Ayako Miyashita Ochoa, adjunct assistant professor of social welfare, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the repeal of a provision of California law that had banned loitering with the intent to sell sex. In signing State Bill 357, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the measure aims to end the disproportionate harassment of women and transgender adults but does not legalize prostitution. The legislation sparked a debate touching on transgender rights, human trafficking and the decriminalization of sex work. Miyashita Ochoa said criminalization pushes sex workers into “isolated and unsafe spaces,” leads to increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases and creates distrust in law enforcement. “What we’re talking about here is moral legislation. And what we should be talking about is labor protections,” Miyashita Ochoa said. “And if we can’t give women and other folks engaged in sex trades that dignity as a worker, then we are just as bad as the people that are taking advantage.”


A New Hub at the Intersection of ‘Multiple Vulnerabilities’  

UCLA Luskin’s newest research initiative is deeply rooted in the community, with the aim of improving the well-being of its most vulnerable members. 

Launched in late 2019, the Hub for Health Intervention, Policy and Practice (HHIPP) connects scholars, policymakers and advocates for those battling poverty, racism, homophobia and discrimination of all kinds.

“We really see HHIPP as in service to Los Angeles’ diverse communities, especially those at the intersection of multiple vulnerabilities,” said Social Welfare Professor Ian Holloway, director of the initiative.

In his long career in research, Holloway has focused on health policy through a social justice lens, working closely with Social Welfare faculty colleague Ayako Miyashita Ochoa.

“When we looked across all of our projects, one of the unifying themes was that we always started with our community partnerships,” Holloway said. “We centered the needs and priorities of the communities that we’re engaged with: lots of diverse LGBTQ+ communities, BIPOC communities, communities of people who use different substances or who are street-connected.”

This has led to innovative and collaborative projects including one using machine learning algorithms to provide personalized information about HIV prevention to gay and bisexual young men. A team led by Miyashita Ochoa is working with people involved in L.A. County’s sex trade to measure the impact of a new state law that prohibits law enforcement from using condoms as evidence of sex work.

HHIPP is also tracking the trajectory of cannabis use among LGBTQ young people in the state. This includes efforts to understand high rates of tobacco use among gender-non-conforming youth, including the role of targeted marketing campaigns.

“And so the idea for HHIPP was really to unify all of these streams of research under one hub,” Holloway said.

HHIPP is committed to making its research widely accessible to the public. To share early findings from the hub’s tobacco-related research, Holloway hosted a webinar tied to LGBTQ Health Week and Transgender Day of Visibility.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the School’s signature Luskin Summit went virtual, HHIPP used the platform to share information on the coronavirus’ impact on the opioid crisis and the role of telemedicine in protecting sexual health.

Even though the pandemic lockdown struck HHIPP just as it was getting off the ground, Holloway noted that the COVID era also brought new opportunities, including development of a proposal to create community-based tools for vaccine promotion and delivery.

“We certainly have seized the moment in terms of trying to understand the impact of COVID on the communities that we’re serving,” he said.

HHIPP’s work has been funded by a variety of organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the California HIV/AIDS Research Program and the California Bureau of Cannabis Control. The initiative established a cross-cutting advisory board and continues to launch partnerships with community groups across Southern California.

Looking down the road, Holloway envisions a brick-and-mortar field site where HHIPP can truly serve the community. Local residents could come to the site for social services or health and mental health support. Scholars could co-create research alongside community members, and Social Welfare, Urban Planning and Public Policy students could develop their skills in real time and alongside policymakers.

“Bridging worlds together and locating power in community would be very aligned with our ethos at HHIPP,” Holloway said. “I think that that is one strategy that moves us closer to achieving our vision.”

Miyashita Ochoa on History of Discriminatory Blood Donation Ban

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Social Welfare Ayako Miyashita Ochoa wrote an article in the Regulatory Review about the inconsistencies between current blood donation deferral policies and modern scientific knowledge. At the height of the HIV epidemic, the FDA implemented a blood donation deferral for all men who have had sex with men in the last year. Miyashita Ochoa explained that, “at the time, exercising extreme caution was the wisest course of action” since scientists didn’t know how the virus was transmitted. However, the policy continued for decades, even as scientists learned more about HIV transmission and improved blood screening techniques. In April 2020, the FDA decreased the deferral period from 12 months to three months. While this was a step in the right direction, “it does not reflect the latest science,” Miyashita Ochoa said. She called on the United States to address HIV and gay-related stigma. “The FDA’s policies must harness truths based on science rather than fear.”

Miyashita Ochoa on Outdated Blood Ban for Gay Men

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Social Welfare Ayako Miyashita Ochoa spoke to North Carolina Health News about policies that continue to bar some gay men from donating blood. Miyashita Ochoa explained that at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, there was no test for HIV or AIDS, and scientists weren’t sure how it was transmitted. “The policy itself was a reflection of that,” she said. “It also obviously targeted specifically the populations that were hardest hit by HIV and AIDS.” Over time, the policies endured despite advances in science. Miyashita Ochoa pointed out that a lot has changed since the 1980s, including what we know about HIV transmission and the efficacy of prevention measures. To combat a shortage in the blood supply caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA relaxed restrictions in 2020 to include men who have not had sex with men for three months. Advocates, however, argue for an end to all bans of gay and bisexual men.

Blood Donation Ban Fueled by Fear, Not Science, Miyashita Ochoa Says

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Social Welfare Ayako Miyashita Ochoa was featured in a Men’s Health article discussing the impact of the longstanding ban on blood donations from gay men. The country’s blood supply is running dangerously low, partly due to the cancellation of many blood drives during the pandemic. Gay and bisexual men, often referred to as men who have sex with men (MSM), are not allowed to give blood if they have had sex with another man in the past three months. A 2014 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA found that allowing MSM equal access to donating blood could increase the total annual blood supply by 2% to 4%, which would help save the lives of more than a million people. Miyashita Ochoa expressed frustration that the ban still has not been lifted. “It is my opinion that we continue to have a real problem with laws and regulations based on fear rather than science,” she said.