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The risks associated with allogeneic red blood cell (RBC) transfusions differ significantly between countries with low and high human development indexes (HDIs). In countries with a low HDI, the risk of infection (HIV, HBV, HCV and malaria) is elevated. In contrast, in countries with a high HDI, immunological reactions (haemolytic transfusion reactions, alloimmunization and immunosuppression) are predominant. Therefore the overall risk associated with RBC transfusions in low HDI countries is much more significant than that in high HDI countries. In view of these risks, the limited efficacy of RBC transfusion and its high costs, this procedure should be used sparingly and rationally. Therefore RBC transfusion protocols adapted to the local situation are essential. Such protocols should distinguish between physiological and haemoglobin-based transfusion triggers. In countries with a high HDI, relative tachycardia and hypotension, despite normovolaemia, ST-segment changes suggestive of myocardial ischaemia and an Hb level <6 g/dl can serve as general guidelines for transfusion. Higher haemoglobin transfusion triggers should be used for patients aged >80 years and those with coronary artery or cerebrovascular disease. In countries with a low HDI, clinical signs of circulatory failure or myocardial ischaemia and an Hb level <5 g/dl can serve as transfusion guidelines.