Safety Tips Regarding Blood Transfusions

Although the nation’s blood supply is safer today than ever before, many people remain fearful of catching AIDS or another disease from a transfusion.

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Use this knowledge to help protect yourself from bad blood.

Blood Screening & Donations

Doctors agree that today’s blood supply is remarkably safer than it was 30 years ago. Risk of catching serious infection is roughly 1 in 5,000. There are several explanations for this increased level of safety.

Whereas blood used to be screened only for hepatitis B and syphilis in the 1980s, there is now more widespread screening to also include HIV and other illnesses. Blood banks now screen donated blood for the two strains of HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B and C, plus two other potentially deadly pathogens, human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1 and HTLV-2) and cytomegalovirus (CMV).

HIV testing is also more accurate, since testing (mandated by the Food & Drug Administration) focuses on the virus itself and donors are thoroughly questioned. So the chances of contracting HIV from a blood transfusion are greatly reduced (to about 1 in 700,000). Fewer transfusions are also given. A generation ago, doctors recommended transfusions even in cases that weren’t life-threatening – to help people feel less tired after surgery, for example. Today, doctors order transfusions only to save lives – not to make patients feel better.

How to Avoid Bad Blood

To protect themselves from tainted blood, it’s important for individuals to remember that blood transfusions save lives and that people have died because they refused transfusions. That being said, there are ways to minimize your risk:

Predeposit your own blood – Autologous donation – banking your own blood – is the single most significant precaution you can take. Other than human error in blood handling (extremely unlikely), your risk of contracting a transfusion-related illness is essentially zero.

Recycle your blood – Many operating rooms are now equipped with “cell-saving” devices that collect blood draining from the surgical incision and reintroduce it into the body. Called intraoperative autologous transfusion (IAT), this technique is often effective in emergency surgery, so it’s definitely worth asking for. It cannot be used for intestinal surgery, tumor removal or any other operation in which blood could be contaminated with bacteria or cancer cells.

Know Your Options

Unlike some states, California requires surgeons to inform patients of their transfusion options. If your surgeon doesn’t explain your options, ask him to do so. Alternatives should be discussed at least six weeks before surgery. If significant blood loss is expected, a series of autologous donations may be required over several weeks. Blood cells can be stored for up to 42 days, frozen plasma for up to one year. The surgeon isn’t necessarily to blame if you should need a transfusion. However, you’re likely to lose less blood under the hand of a good surgeon. Ask how many times he/she has done this procedure.

Some hospitals can provide plasma or platelets taken from one person. “Single donor” blood is generally less likely than “pooled” blood to carry disease. However, this isn’t always practical. Given today’s careful screening practices, the increase in safety is marginal at best.

Some patients scheduled for surgery ask friends and relatives to donate blood. The assumption is that blood from someone you know is safer than blood from anonymous donors. In fact, friends and relatives are likely to be first-time donors (whereas the community supply consists mostly of blood from repeat donors), so their blood hasn’t been subjected to repeat testing. Ironically, it may be less safe.

Ask About Blood-Boosting Drugs

Researchers have identified hormone-like substances that boost the production of red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets. Erythropoietin (EPO) is one such drug for red blood cell production that can take the place of repeated transfusions.

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