Tailored therapy of adult acute leukaemia in Jehovah's Witnesses: Unjustified reluctance to treat

Daniele Laszlo, Alberto Agazzi, Aron Goldhirsch, Saverio Cinieri, Francesco Bertolini, Cristina Rabascio, Giancarlo Pruneri, Liliana Calabrese, Angela Cocquio, Giovanni Martinelli

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Treatment of acute leukaemia in adult Jehovah's Witnesses (JW) is challenging because of 'a priori' refusal of most physicians to apply diagnostic and therapeutic procedures to haematological abnormalities resembling acute leukaemia. Rejection of blood transfusions by individuals of this faith is usually blamed to justify this attitude, thus leading to severe personal, medical and psychological distress related to the lack of care. We therefore intended to verify whether a standard (tailored) chemotherapy, without the use of prophylactic blood product transfusions, could be applied during treatment of acute leukaemia under such circumstances. Eleven consecutive JW adult patients with acute leukaemia, all of whom had been denied care in other institutions, were treated at the European Institute of Oncology (EIO) in Milan, Italy. Five had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) (one bcr/ abl positive), six had acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) with immunophenotype and/ or cytogenetic intermediate-high risk features, except one patient with acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APML). Standard induction chemotherapy [cytosine arabinoside (ARA-C) and daunorubicin (DNR) for AML, vincristine (VCR), DNR and prednisone (PDN) for ALL, all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and DNR for APML] with the antracycline dose of at least 30 mg/sqm were used. All patients experienced severe anaemia after induction chemotherapy despite erythropoietin. Median haemoglobin nadir for patients with ALL and AML was 4.5 g/dL (range 1.3-6.9) and 5.1 g/dL (range 2.6-6.8), respectively. Median platelet nadir counts for all patients was 14.5 × 109)/L (range 1-24). One patient died during induction probably due to haemorrhage. Four of five patients with ALL achieved a complete remission (CR) (including the bcr/abl case) while among patients with AML only the one with APML achieved CR. Three patients (APML = 1 and ALL = 2) are still alive and disease-free. This small series of adult patients with leukaemia illustrates difficulties in treating patients who are practising JW, yet nevertheless provides a significant argument against the prejudicial decision leading to evasion of treatment in these patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)264-267
Number of pages4
JournalEuropean Journal of Haematology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2004


  • Acute leukaemia
  • Jehovah's Witnesses tailored therapy
  • Transfusions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hematology


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