Published: Sun, May 13, 2018
Medicine | By Brett Sutton

Final donation for man whose blood helped save 2.4 million babies

Final donation for man whose blood helped save 2.4 million babies

Affectionately known as "the man with the golden arm", 81-year-old James Harrison has made over 1173 donations over the course of 60 years, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

When Mr Harrison started donating, his blood was deemed so special that his life was insured for one million Australian dollars.

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In 1999, Harrison received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his ongoing support of the Blood Service and Anti-D program. Without the injections, the next baby could suffer from hemolytic disease of the fetus and newborn, known as HDN or HDFN, which can be fatal.

According to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, Harrison has made almost 1,100 blood donations throughout his lifetime and has saved the lives of over 2.4 million Australian babies.

Harrison began donating blood after he went through a major chest surgery when he was 14-years-old, said the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.

"Medications like Anti-D are a life-giving intervention for thousands of Australian mums, but they are only available because men like James give blood".

Harrison has now passed the Australian Red Cross's donor age limit, but he told the Sydney Herald he'd "keep on going if they'd let me".

"They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I've been donating ever since", Mr. Harrison said.

The woman's body responds to the RhD positive blood by producing antibodies (infection-fighting molecules) that recognise the foreign blood cells and destroy them.

More than three million doses of Anti-D containing Mr Harrison's blood have been given to Australian mothers with a negative blood type since 1967.

If she is pregnant with an RhD-positive baby, the antibodies can cross the placenta, causing rhesus disease in the unborn baby.

If sensitisation occurs, the next time the woman is exposed to RhD positive blood her body will produce antibodies immediately.

HDN still has the potential to affect one in six newborns in Australia.

In Australia, 17% of the pregnant women have received Anti-D, and even Mr. Harrison's daughter got it. He retires with 1162 donations from his right arm and 10 from his left.

Harrison's blood can help women and unborn babies with Rh incompatibility.

If you want to become a blood donor, visit the American Red Cross website and search for a blood drive near you.

Harrison draws out the process as he reclines in a chair, squeezing a firm sponge absent-mindedly and enjoying the gaggle of half a dozen Anti-D babies cooing in their mothers arms; families who have come to thank him on his last day.

The antibody is used to make a lifesaving medication, Anti-D, as it is given to pregnant mothers whose blood is at risk of attacking and killing their unborn babies.

"He really is remarkable", Ismay says, "keeping our babies safe".

"They just said you needed the vaccine", she said.

Australia's Anti-D program is wholly dependent on just 160 donors.

Attempts to create a synthetic version has so far failed.

Speaking to CNN in 2015, Harrison said that after his operation his father told him strangers had saved his life by giving their blood. "It's so important", he said.

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