The Man Who Saved 2.4 Million Babies With Rhesus Disease
Having a newborn baby is an exciting time in every mother’s life that entails a great number of life-changing experiences. On the other hand, being a mother to a newborn also involves a lot of worrying. Newborns are fragile beings that are susceptible to complications.
One such complication is Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease. But today, we celebrate the generosity and sacrifice of one man who went above and beyond (to say the least) to help babies affected by Rhesus Disease.
What is Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease?
Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease occurs when there is an incompatibility between the blood types of a mother and her baby (1). Rhesus, also commonly referred to as Rh, is a protein that is found on the surface of red blood cells (2).
When blood cells have this protein they are considered to be positive and have the Rh factor (2). When blood cells don’t have this protein, they are Rh negative (2). Caucasians are most likely to be Rh negative at 15%, followed by 5.5% of African Americans, and less than 1% of Asians (3).
Rhesus Disease usually occurs when an Rh negative mother has a baby with an Rh positive father (1). The baby inherits Rh positive blood cells, which the mother’s immune system sees as foreign (1). The mother’s immune system develops antibodies to destroy these foreign cells and keeps them around in case foreign cells appear again in a future pregnancy, thus making the mother “Rh sensitized” (1).
Rhesus Disease typically only shows up in a mother’s second or higher pregnancy (1). During the affected pregnancy, the mother’s antibodies cross the placenta to fight Rh positive cells and destroy red blood cells in the baby’s body, making them sick with Haemolytic Disease (1). When Haemolytic Disease occurs, a baby can have enlarged organs, brain damage, jaundice, or fatal anemia (1).
What Treatments Are There for Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease?
The condition can be pretty debilitating to a baby, but luckily blood donations can improve Rhesus Disease immensely and save the lives of affected newborns (4). The blood of one man, in particular, has saved the lives of a whopping 2.4 million babies (4). This incredible human goes by the name of James Harrison (4).
The Man With the “Golden Arm”
James Harrison has extraordinary ability to naturally produce RhD-negative blood and Rh positive antibodies, making him the ideal donor for Rh negative mothers (4).
In the 1960’s, it was discovered that by injecting Rh negative mothers with donated RhD immunoglobulin, the antibodies could mop up Rh positive blood cells without causing harm to the baby (4). The antibodies Mr. Harrison has are in such strong concentrations that “every ample of anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it”, Robyn Barlow, the Rh program coordinator, explained (4).
To date, Mr. Harrison has donated a total of 1173 times and has done so nearly every week for 60 years (4). Mr. Harrison is now 81-years-old and has surpassed the donor age limit, which means he now has to retire (4). Being the remarkable human being he is, he insisted, “I’d keep on going it they’d let me” (4).
On Friday May 11, 2018, James Harrison made his final blood donation (4). Mr. Harrison explained it wasn’t easy for him, “It’s a sad day for me. The end of a long run.” (4).
Mr. Harrison is an extraordinary man whose actions saved millions of lives, but that wouldn’t have happened had he not made the decision many years ago to join the Anti-D program (4). You also have the ability to change the lives of so many families by getting tested to see if you’re eligible to donate blood.
(1) Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=hemolytic-disease-of-the-newborn-90-P02368
(2) The Rh Factor: How It Can Affect Your Pregnancy. (2018, February). Retrieved from https://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/The-Rh-Factor-How-It-Can-Affect-Your-Pregnancy
(3) Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.ucsfbenioffchildrens.org/pdf/manuals/42_Hemol.pdf
(4) Aubusson, K. (2018, May 11). Final donation for man whose blood helped save 2.4 million babies. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/healthcare/final-donation-for-man-whose-blood-helped-save-2-4-million-babies-20180511-p4zerp.html
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