For nearly 2,500 years physicians bled their patients in an attempt to rid them of disease. It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that transfusing donor blood into patients became a common therapeutic choice. Because the practice of blood transfusion is relatively recent, medical professionals continue to study its effects, both immediate and long term. Many of those studies are revealing surprising results.
For those of us who grew up in the post World War II era, donated blood has always been advertised as a “gift of life.” In the emotional days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, blood donation rose dramatically. Citizens wanted to help, and for many that help was offered through a visit to their local blood bank.
The idea that transfused blood was at worst harmless, and at best life-saving, was radically shaken with the realization in the early 1980’s that the AIDS virus could be transmitted through blood. Screening tests were developed, and beginning in 1985 the blood supply in many countries was routinely screened for HIV antibodies. While not foolproof, the statistical probability of contracting HIV through blood transfusion in the US is now estimated to be about 1 in 1.5 million.
There are, however, other complications that are becoming increasingly evident with continued study.
The book Your Body Your Choice by Shannon Farmer and David Webb states “Infection is unquestionably a major cause of complications and death following surgery. Because of this, immune suppression from blood transfusions may well be the most serious life-threatening outcome of the therapy.”
Also cited is a study published in the July 1999 issue of Transfusion which determined that the length of hospital stay in the studied group (hip replacement surgeries done between 1983 and 1993) increased with the number of blood units transfused. Patients in the study who received no transfused blood spent an average of 9 days in the hospital; patients who received three units spent an average of 23 days in the hospital.
Researchers will continue to study the effects of blood transfusion, and continue to seek ways to provide safer more effective care for their patients. In view of what has been learned to date however, some experts predict that transfusing blood will one day go the way of bloodletting, into the annals of medical history.