Australian Man Donates Rare Blood to Save 2 Million Babies
James Harrison, 74, has an antibody in his blood that prevents a severe form of anemia called Rhesus disease. Over the past 56 years, he has donated his rare blood 984 times, saving the lives of more than 2 million babies. One of those was his grandson.
Mr. Harrison has been donating blood every few weeks since he was 18 years old. When he began this endeavor, his blood was deemed so special that his life was insured for one million Australian dollars and the country nicknamed him “The man with the golden arm”.
His blood has since been used to develop a vaccine called Anti-D.
Rhesus disease, also called Rh disease, occurs during pregnancy when there is an incompatibility between the blood types of the mother and the baby. Everyone has one of four blood types (A, B, AB, or O) and an Rh factor, which is either positive or negative. If the Rh factor is present on the covering of the red blood cells, the person is Rh positive.
Rh positive is the more dominant gene, but problems can occur when the mother is Rh negative and the baby is Rh positive. During delivery, when the placenta detaches, the blood cells from the baby can cross over into the mother. The mother’s immune system sees these cells as foreign invaders and responds by developing antibodies to fight and destroy them. The mother then becomes Rh sensitized, meaning that she continues to carry the antibodies in case the cells come back.
In future pregnancies, the mother’s antibodies can cross the placenta to fight the Rh positive cells in the body of the unborn baby. As the red blood cells are destroyed, the baby becomes anemic, which can then lead to jaundice and organ enlargement. This is called erythroblastosis fetalis, which can become severe enough to cause the fetal organs to fail and the baby to be stillborn.
Mothers are usually tested for Rh factor during pregnancy so appropriate treatment can be provided. One treatment includes the transfusion of red blood cells into the baby’s circulation while he is still in the uterus. These intrauterine transfusions may need to be repeated during the pregnancy.
The Anti-D vaccine is given after a mother is diagnosed with Rh-negative blood to prevent the immune system from making antibodies and offers protection for future pregnancies. The FDA approved the drug for US use under the name RhoGAM in 1968.
Mr. Harrison is expected to reach the 1,000 milestone of blood donations this September.