James Harrison is an Australian with a gift. And he has given this gift over 1100 times.
It’s his blood plasma. But this is not the story simply of someone who donates blood regularly. Regular blood donors also save countless lives. Harrison’s blood is special. It contains an antibody that has helped save 2.4 million babies.
When James Harrison was 14 years old, he underwent chest surgery and received many units of donated blood. He knew he would become a regular blood donor, like his father, as soon as he was old enough.
When he started donating blood in the 1950s, the people who tested it realised that Harrison’s blood had something special: a high level of rare antibodies that could be used to prevent Rhesus disease. They asked him to be part of the Anti-D program and he has been donating weekly ever since.
This month, James Harrison donated plasma for the 1173th and last time. At 81 years old, he can longer donate blood in Australia.
Rhesus disease can happen when, during pregnancy, a woman’s own blood cells attack the blood cells of her child. It can happen when a mother is Rh- and the father of the child in Rh+ resulting in a baby who is Rh+. With each subsequent pregnancies, the effects of the disease get worse. Children can suffer brain damage and even be stillborn because of Rhesus disease.
In the middle of the last century, researchers in London (England), New York, Australia and Canada were all working on solving the problem at the same time. The story is really interesting and involves a Canadian researcher nicknamed named Zip! Read more, HERE, about the Canadian researcher and the Canadian women who donated blood that helped solve Rhesus disease in Canada.
Thanks to vaccines like Anti-D in Australia and WinRho in Canada, Rhesus disease is basically gone in developed countries. But, in developing countries, it is estimated that there are roughly 100,000 newborn deaths a year, with more than 25,000 babies brain-damaged.