When a 14 year-old James Harrison underwent major surgery in 1950, no one could have predicted the surgery would not only save his life, but the lives of millions of others. When James realized that blood donations were responsible for his recovery — he required more than 27 pints — he decided he would begin giving his own blood as soon as he reached legal age. And so, from the age of 18 all the way to the age of 81, James donated as often as he was able, reaching a record-breaking 1173 donations total.
In May of 2018, James gave his final donation, as Australian law prohibits donations from those older than 81. But by that time, the plasma from James’ blood was credited with saving 2.4 million newborns who otherwise may have died in utero or shortly after birth. After his first donation, doctors found that James’ blood had the valuable properties of the Rh blood group system, necessary to treat pregnant women. In short, if a developing fetus and the birth mother have incompatible blood types, the mother’s immune system interprets the fetus as an invader and attacks the developing immune system. The condition is sometimes referred to as Rhesus disease.
Before And After IG
Before researchers developed the injections to treat the blood-type incompatibility, according to the Toronto Star, it’s estimated that 100,000 mothers in the Western world lost their babies each year. Now, though the disorder can still be a threat, due to the immunoglobulins synthesized from donors like James, the disorder is no longer a death sentence. As James put out his arm for the 1173rd time, new mothers with their healthy babies surrounded him in his chair; balloons spelling out the number 1173 floated behind them.
James has been an advocate and activist for volunteer blood donation almost all of his life. He was touched by the fact that a gift of blood from strangers could help him recover, and so many others. According to a 2007 article in The Australian, James was a vocal opponent of provisions in the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the U.S. that would incentivize importing and exporting products referred to as “biologics,” e.g. blood and plasma products. On the Sydney Morning Herald YouTube site, user Karen Vickery posted her own story: “Thank you. I had these injections, they were very painful but saved my two sons’ lives as they were both rh+ and I’m rh- also my daughter is rh- like me so your blood saved 3 of her rh+ children, her last child is rh- like her.” Another, Tony Diablo, referred to James as “Grandfather to all these babies.”
More To Be Done
Though hemolytic disease in newborns has been nearly eradicated thanks to researchers and donors like James, immunoglobulin therapies have not reached all four corners of the world. In 2017, the Toronto Star reported on Nigerian Florence Nneka Onwuasoanya, who experienced nine miscarriages before doctors identified that she likely had Rhesus disease. Journalist David Zimmerman published a book about the history of the disease and its quick eradication throughout the Western world, identifying one Ontario physician who recognized there was more to the story.
Dr. Alvin Zipursky founded a program called Sick Kids to help identify and treat childhood illnesses in areas of the globe where resources are scarce. According to the Star article, he found “an estimated 373,300 Rh disease cases in 2010, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. An estimated 141,000 babies died or were stillborn and another 27,000 were at risk of permanent disability.” Since the trio (Onwuasoayna, Zimmerman, and Zipursky) have publicized their stories, more organizations have become aware of the problem, which we can hope will bring the cure to pregnant women around the world.
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