Published: Sun, May 13, 2018
Medical | By

Final donation for man whose blood helped save 2.4 million babies

Final donation for man whose blood helped save 2.4 million babies

"The end of a long run", he said as he was making his last blood donation at the Town Hall Donor Centre.

James Harrison, dubbed the "man with the golden arm", has provided 1,117 bags of vital blood which contain an antibody in his plasma, and stops babies dying from Rhesus disease, a form of severe anaemia.

That's a risky condition that develops when a woman has rhesus-negative blood (RhD negative) and has a baby in her womb with RhD positive blood. In the worst cases, it can result in brain damage, or death, for the babies.

The condition develops when the infant's mother has rhesus negative blood, and the baby inherits rhesus positive blood from the father.

Scientists suspect this has something to do with the 13 units of blood transfusions he received after undergoing major chest surgery when he was 14 years old.

After his surgery, Harrison promised to become a blood donor to help others.

Jemma Falkenmire, spokesperson for the Blood Service, said: "Every bag of blood is precious, but James' blood is particularly extraordinary".

If sensitisation occurs, the next time the woman is exposed to RhD positive blood her body will produce antibodies immediately.

But after reaching the maximum age for donating blood, he is to retire, the country's Red Cross Blood Service said. The mother's body treats the blood of the fetus as a foreign invader and attacks with antibodies.

Harrison was the program's first donor.

"I'd keep going if they let me", Harrison told the Herald.

After a few years of donating, doctors were shocked to find that his blood contained an antibody that directly neutralizes rhesus disease: a unsafe condition in which a pregnant woman's blood attacks her unborn child. "Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James' blood". It prevents women with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during pregnancy.

'Medications like Anti-D are a life-giving intervention for thousands of Australian mums, but they are only available because men like James give blood'. Roughly 17 per cent of pregnant women receive Anti-D, including Harrison's own daughter. With Harrison's antibodies in her blood, little Samuel is her fourth happy and healthy baby.

In total, James' blood has been used to make over three million doses of Anti-D since 1967, CNN reports.

That would be more than two million lives, according to the blood service, and for that Harrison is considered a national hero in Australia. Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time'.

"All we can do is hope there will be people out there generous enough to do it, and selflessly in the way he's done", she said.

Despite donating for 50 years, James said he's "never once watched the needle go in". "I can't stand the sight of blood, and I can't stand pain".

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