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Rhesus Disease: Why One Blood Donor Is a Hero to All Pregnant Women

7 minute read


You have all seen or heard the slogan “Save a life, give blood,” but have you ever stopped to consider how much power is in that statement? Donating blood is an admirable and often heroic gesture, as countless lives are saved using the pints of donated fluid.

If one pint can save one life, imagine how many can be saved when you give blood every week for sixty years. This is the story of one man who did just that.

A Hero in Human Clothing

This was not the actions of a caped superhero, but the selfless act of an Australian citizen known in the community as the “Man with the Golden Arm.” 2018 marked a special sort of retirement for James Harrison, as he retired from donating blood after sixty years.

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Deserving more than your standard retirement gold watch, Harrison is thought to have saved as many as 2.4 million lives with his weekly blood donations.

Specifically, Harrison’s blood has saved the lives of babies because of its unique disease-fighting antibodies. His blood has been used to create an injection known as Anti-D, which fights the life-threatening rhesus disease. Pregnant women with this disease develop a condition where their blood attacks their unborn child resulting in brain damage and even death.

At the age of 14, blood donations saved Harrison’s life following a major chest surgery. As a result, he vowed to become a donor.

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When doctors discovered that his blood created a rare, powerful antibody during his weekly donations, he started donating blood plasma instead. Doctors believe that his uncommon blood type was a result of the infusion he received as a child, but he is only one of 50 people in Australia known to have this important antibody.

Up until 1967, thousands of babies were dying each year at the hands of rhesus disease, and doctors were unsure as to why. As the number of miscarriages and babies born with brain damage continued to grow, researchers worked overtime to find the reason and potential solution.

Australia was the first country to discover this powerful antibody, and Harrison was the donor that made that possible.

Understanding Rhesus Disease

When a mother has RhD (rhesus) negative blood and the baby she is carrying is positive, the disease develops. The mother’s blood attacks the unborn baby’s blood cells, causing damage and potentially death. This usually happens if the mother has been previously sensitized to RhD positive blood, typically during a previous pregnancy.

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The incompatibility of the blood cells is instrumental in the harm caused to babies. During the first exposure, the mother’s blood is able to produce antibodies to fight off foreign cells, but on the second encounter, the antibodies are quicker to release and can cross the placenta, causing harm to the developing baby. The cells can even continue to attack the baby’s blood cells for months after birth.

With the development of the Anti-D injection, rhesus disease is no longer the threat it once was. In addition to this, several screening options are available to women to determine if their blood is RhD negative or positive.

Identifying this early on in the pregnancy or before conception, allows for the injection to be given and babies to be protected.

Given the severity of the disease and the potential risks to unborn children, it is understandable why scientists were so eager to find a treatment and why Harrison became such a legend. The development of the Anti-D injection, based on the antibody discovered in Harrison, helps to remove the fetal RhD cells before they can cause any sensitization.

Sadly, injections do not work if the mother has been previously sensitized to the RhD cells. An unborn baby born with rhesus disease can be treated depending on the severity of the condition.

Blood transfusions are typically used in the most severe cases and mother and baby are monitored closely during pregnancy and after birth. In addition to this, there are possible side effects to the injection that mothers need to be aware of:

Headaches and dizziness

♦ Feeling weak and tired

♦ Mild itching or appearance of a rash

Joint and muscle pains

♦ Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps

♦ Pain at the injection site

Blood transfusions do come with their own risks and the risk of infection can be increased. However, the blood used for transfusions is thoroughly screened and accurately matched to the baby’s type to minimize this.

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The risks associated with transfusions are minimal as compared to the potential dangers associated with rhesus disease. If left untreated, rhesus disease can cause stillbirth. Also, when the baby is born, it can be afflicted with learning disabilities, deafness, blindness, and brain damage.

Thankfully, prevention options, such as the Anti-D injection and treatments of infusions and phototherapy, are typically effective, and these serious complications are rare.

Legendary Outcome

Australia’s age limitations for donors have forced Harrison into retirement, but his actions serve as inspiration to others. His story has been shared worldwide in the hopes of encouraging others to behave in the same selfless and heroic way.

Even if you don’t have a special antibody, donating blood can help to save lives, so is always worth the effort.

The selfless act of giving blood does more than just save lives. Giving blood lets doctors keep an eye on your health too, so you may discover something that might have otherwise been overlooked when you regularly give blood.

While blood donations in general are selfless acts, Harrison’s donations became notable due to his continued commitment to the cause. Every batch of the Anti-D injection in Australia has been made from Harrison’s blood, and, with 17 percent of pregnant women at risk for rhesus disease, his actions are beyond commendable. A little good will can go a long way.

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