A valuable gift that some babies can't live without

Babies born to women who have rhesus negative blood.
Babies born to women who have rhesus negative blood. 

Twins Seth and Ethan Murray don't know it, but one of them owes his life to James Harrison.

The 72-year-old has donated his unusual blood plasma, which has gone into every batch of the vital blood product, Anti-D, for the past 40 years. The Australian Red Cross Blood Service estimates he has saved thousands babies born to women who have rhesus negative blood.

It may seem odd that a womb can be a war zone for a foetus, but that is what used to occur with HDN - hemolytic disease of the newborn.

It may seem odd that a womb can be a war zone for a foetus, but that is what used to occur with HDN - hemolytic disease of the newborn.

"It was a terrible disease. It used to cause irreversible brain damage, and death, but now because of the Anti-D program it is preventable," said Dr Tony Keller, a donor and product safety specialist with the blood service.

The puzzle of HDN was solved in 1940 when scientists discovered that blood could be further grouped, as either containing the rhesus factor protein (positive), or not (negative).

Rhesus negative women exposed to the blood of their rh positive foetuses produced antibodies which attacked the cells of subsequent rh positive foetuses. The only treatment was immediate blood transfusions for the erroneously named "blue babies".

The discovery became a political football in some countries - in the US, some states canvassed laws to ban "incompatible" men and women from marrying.

The breakthrough in public health in Australia came in 1967, when James Harrison and a small group of negative blood donors joined the Anti-D project. Mr Harrison recalls he was insured for $1 million in case something went amiss with the treatment that was designed to save the lives of babies.

In 1965, there were 96 babies who died from HDN in NSW; 10 years later, the number had dropped to 34.

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Mr Harrison, who lives on the Central Coast, suspects he developed the antibodies after receiving positive blood during surgery in the early 1950s. His late wife, Barbara, was also an Anti-D donor.

Mr Harrison once held the Guinness World Record for most blood donated, and as of yesterday, had made 961 blood donations in his 52 years of giving. He donates every seven days; the plasma containing the antibodies is removed, and the rest of his blood is returned to his body.

About once a year he is injected with a tiny amount of rhesus positive red cells to keep his antibody level high. "There's a bit of me in every donation that goes out to mothers that need it, and it does make me feel good," he said.

Dr Keller said the donor pool was small, just 200 to 300 people.

"We are producing Anti-D sufficient for Australia's population at the moment but it requires constant vigilance and new recruitment."

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