Routine Blood Transfusion-Not So Routine After All

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is a rare, but deadly infection that can be transmitted in transfused blood or blood products.

An article in the UK Telegraph Killed by a needless blood transfusion, notes that Deryck Kenny, who died in 2003, was the first recorded death from vCJD traceable to contaminated blood.  His widow, a retired nurse, later reviewed his medical record and could find no documented reason for the three units of blood Deryck received during surgery for prostate cancer.  She concluded that it was simply the surgeon’s routine to transfuse patients.

Routine is a more common reason for transfusion than most would think.  As a result, hospitals around the globe are beginning to adopt patient blood management as a key safety concept.  The roots of the program lie in alternative treatments developed for patients who decline all blood transfusions in their care, in the past primarily Jehovah’s Witnesses, but now a choice that is being made by an increasing number of others as well.

For those anticipating a planned surgery, consider asking your physician to do a routine blood count in advance, and if anemia (low hemoglobin / hematocrit) is noted, to take steps to correct that anemia prior to surgery.  That simple step alone would eliminate the need for many transfuions during or after surgery.  In cases of mild anemia iron supplements may help, or if the problem is more pronounced, IV iron or medication that stimulates a patient’s own bone marrow to produce red cells, may be needed.

It has been said that “the safest transfusion is the one not given.”