Just What Are The Risks?
A investigation into the risks associated with blood transfusions reveals that your chances of contracting AIDS from contaminated blood are somewhere between 1 in 83,000 and 1 in 660,000 depending on which scientific source you accept. You will be able to verify this for yourself if you follow the references in The Library of Blood Links. Or if you want to learn the facts about transfusion risks right now, follow this link to the American Association of Blood Banks
If we compare this to other medical risks, the figures take on more meaning. For instance, if you have general anesthesia, your chances of having a reaction and dying are between 1 in 15,000 and 1 in 30,000. If you accept penicillin, your chances of a fatal reaction are about 1 in 30,000. Clearly, there is a far greater chance of dying as a result of general anesthesia or antibiotic treatment than there is of contracting AIDS through a blood transfusion.
The Watchtower Society (WTS) partially quotes and thus acknowledges a study indicating that for every 13,000 blood transfusions, there is one death. This is a slightly greater risk than that associated with taking an antibiotic, or having general anesthesia. The society also acknowledges a study which indicates the refusal of blood during surgery increases mortality by approximately 1%. (A chart published in the February 1993 issue of 'The American Journal of Medicine' shows that studies based on 1,404 operations mostly cardiovascular surgery and hip replacement performed on Jehovah's Witnesses (JW) without blood transfusions reveal that 1.4 percent of the patients died due to lack of blood as a primary or contributing cause of death.) This means that every time a JW has "bloodless surgery" his chance of dying is 1% greater. Expressed another way, for every 100 hundred operations, there is one unnecessary death. Multiply this by many years and thousands upon thousands of operations, add to it those who die from massive blood loss before making it to surgery, factor in the victims of childbirth complications, leukemia and related blood disorders, and what you have is the needless deaths of many thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses. (Compare WT 10/15/93 p. 32)
We wish that we could provide some hard numbers, but for obvious reasons, the Society chooses not to document these deaths. We will attempt to illustrate the human cost. According to published reports, in 1994 there were 22.6 million surgical procedures performed in the United States. For the purpose of our illustration, we will assume that only 25% of these procedures would qualify as major surgery, or approximately 5.6 million cases. Based upon the WTS published figures, we can extrapolate that approximately 20,600 of these surgeries were carried out upon Witnesses (U.S. publisher ratio is 1:270). Since we know that a refusal to accept blood increases the mortality risk by approximately one percent, we can conservatively estimate that 206 Witnesses died in the United States, directly as a result of refusing blood therapy. Furthermore, there are 5.4 million Witnesses publishing the good news as of 1996. Less than one million of these were in the United States. So we can conservatively multiply this figure by a factor of five. The resulting estimate shows that approximately 1000 Jehovah's Witnesses die annually as a result of the blood prohibition.
It might be added that although the 1000 deaths per year figure seems large. It translates to less that one death for each 5,500 Witnesses annually. This means that in an average circuit of 2000 Witnesses, we would expect to see only one death about every three years. In the average congregation, we would expect to see a death only once every fifty years. H.L.C. members, and experienced elders will generally testify that the death rate they have witnessed actually exceeds that produced with this illustration.
There are so many assumptions made here, that these figures cannot be considered to be a reliable estimate. However, it should be remembered that these estimates do not take into consideration the Witnesses who bleed to death in emergency rooms from massive blood loss, those who die from diseases like leukemia, or those who otherwise bleed to death and never make it to the operating room. Additionally, JWs in the United States benefit from a higher standard of care than do many in other lands. This is especially the case with respects to "non-blood, alternative therapies," requiring special equipment and techniques not available in many lands.
The actual figures may be higher or lower. This is simply the best that we can offer at this time, although we are making an ongoing effort to improve the accuracy of our estimates.
To read the WTS Society's literature, one would never get the impression that JWs are dying at this rate. Blood is portrayed as some polluted substance that should be avoided like germ infected puss. And doctors who advocate it's use are vilified.
This is not to say that blood is without risks. Like any other organ transplant or serious surgery, there can be problems and complications, and these are on rare occasion fatal. For instance, if you have a blood transfusion there is a risk of contracting Hepatitis. This risk is less than one percent, and the condition is not necessarily fatal.
The risk of a developing a significant hemolytic transfusion reaction, enough to cause significant morbidity or mortality, is between 1/10,000 and 1/25,000 per unit. See Canadian Journal of Anesthesia, 1992, 39:8, pg 823. This agrees roughly with the figure quoted by the society of one death for every 13,000 transfusions.
Should this risk cause you to reject a necessary blood transfusion? Consider this, if you were seriously injured or suffering from a life threatening illness, and your doctor told you that you had a 99% chance of recovery if he operated, what would you do? Would you reason that the risks of the operation were just too high? This is, in essence what the WTS is arguing with respects to the use of blood.
If a blood transfusion can be avoided, by all means avoid it. This is not a radical thought to health care professionals. If a diseased organ can be treated with drugs or surgery this is usually preferable to an organ transplant. The same can be said about blood transfusions. Often times they can be avoided, and are not truly necessary. Doctors have no interest or desire to provide unnecessary blood transfusions, as they are quite well aware of the risks.
Bear in mind too, that when we talk in terms of a Witness having a blood transfusion,we are discussing a life or death situation, probably massive trauma and blood loss. What is the risk of dying in this situation if one does not take a blood transfusion? We have all heard of the stories where Witnesses have survived in these situations, but many die unnecessarily.
The September 1999 edition of Consumer Reports carries an article on the risks of blood transfusions. We recommend that you read the article.
Check out http://doyle.ibme.utoronto.ca/ which cites figures of 61.5% of JW patients dying if their preoperative hemoglobin level was below 6 g/dL and 33% dying if between 6.1 and 8 g/dL.
Also, the National Institutes of Health indicates deaths due to blood are way down from the 1 out of 13,000 bottles figure. http://text.nim.nih.gov/ftrs reports one fatal hemolytic transfusion reaction for every 100,000 units of blood. Link now appears to be dead.
And a May 7, 1997 ASSOCIATED PRESS article gives the current risk of AIDS infection as less than one case per 450,000 pints of blood.
A federal government report titled "Progress in Blood Supply Safety" concludes, "Nonetheless, blood and blood products are not entirely risk-free...But for patients who need blood transfusions, the risk of transfusion-associated disease is far less than the risk of dying or becoming more seriously ill without a transfusion."