Final donation for man whose blood helped save 2.4 million babies

edited Thursday 17 May 2018 in Health

For every regular blood donation, three lives could be saved; an ordinary plasma donation could save 18.

But James Harrison is extraordinary. His blood has helped save the lives of 2.4 million babies.

The 81-year-old's plasma contains a potent antibody used to create a remarkable treatment known as Anti-D that protects unborn babies from the potentially deadly Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease (HDN).

On Friday, after more than 60 years and 1173 donations, Mr Harrison made his final benefaction.

“It’s a sad day for me. The end of a long run,” Mr Harrison says as his blood flows from the crook of his right arm to the plasmapheresis machine at the Town Hall Donor Centre.

Rh disease

Also known as rhesus isoimmunisation, Rh (D) disease, rhesus incompatibility, or rhesus disease is a type of hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN). The RhD protein is coded by the RHD. Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease can be devastating and causes multiple miscarriages, still births, and brain damage or fatal anaemia in newborns.

When a pregnant woman with an Rh negative blood type is carrying a baby with Rh positive blood, her body registers the baby’s red blood cells as a foreign threat (an invading virus of bacteria) and produces antibodies to destroy the invader.

HDN killed thousands of Australian babies every year before scientists made their breakthrough Anti-D discovery in the 1960s. The breakthrough came when Australian scientists realised they could head off HDN by injecting Rh- mothers with low levels of donated RhD immunoglobulin. The antibodies mop up any Rh+ blood cells without harming the baby.

Mr Harrison naturally produces the rare combination of RhD-negative blood and Rh+ antibodies, making him the ideal donor.

 “Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it,” said Robyn Barlow the Rh program coordinator who recruited James, the program's first donor.

“Since the very first mother received her dose at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1967. “It’s an enormous thing ... He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it,” she said.

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