What is the role of exchange transfusion in the treatment of hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN)?

Updated: Dec 28, 2017
  • Author: Sameer Wagle, MBBS, MD; Chief Editor: Muhammad Aslam, MD  more...
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Exchange transfusion removes circulating bilirubin and antibody-coated RBCs, replacing them with RBCs compatible with maternal serum and providing albumin with new bilirubin binding sites. The process is time consuming and labor intensive but remains the ultimate treatment to prevent kernicterus. The process involves the placement of a catheter via the umbilical vein into the inferior vena cava and removal and replacement of 5- to 10-mL aliquots of blood sequentially, until about twice the volume of the neonate's circulating blood volume is reached (ie, double-volume exchange).

This process removes approximately 70-90% of fetal RBCs. The amount of bilirubin removed directly varies with the pretransfusion bilirubin level and amount of blood exchanged. Because most of the bilirubin is in the extravascular space, only about 25% of the total bilirubin is removed by an exchange transfusion. A rapid rebound of serum bilirubin level is common after equilibration and frequently requires additional exchange transfusions. However, continued hemolysis and anemia in spite of multiple exchange transfusions and negative direct antiglobulin test (DAT), should raise the possibility of absorption of IgG anti-D acquired from maternal breast milk leading to hyporegenerative anemia caused by ongoing hemolysis of erythroid precursor and marrow supression. [46]

The indications for exchange transfusion are controversial, except for the fact that severe anemia and the presence of a rapidly worsening jaundice despite optimal phototherapy in the first 12 hours of life indicate the need for exchange transfusion. In addition, the presence of conditions that increase the risk of bilirubin encephalopathy lowers the threshold of safe bilirubin levels.

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