Blood Can be Bad, or a Blessing

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There may well come a time in your life when you need a life-saving blood transfusion, and you’ll be glad of the anonymous donations made by millions, maybe even including yourself.It’s called life-blood because that’s exactly what it gives us but it can take that life away just as easily.

Anger or resentment between people are thoughts that automatically spring to mind when you hear talk of ‘bad blood’.Vicious feuds between families are blood feuds and violent acts are sometimes called blood curdling.Fathers worry about the bloodline and farmers often fret over bloodstock.Let’s face it – blood has an importance in our lives that goes way beyond the biological need for it.

Wars have been fought over the purity of national blood, despite the fact that the stuff itself is the same whatever creed or colour you are.In today’s world the sad truth is that the purity of blood is no longer an issue of race, but of where it came from.Healthy blood is no longer an absolute certainty from donors.

Not only do we have a world being ravaged by AIDS, which can be passed on via a blood transfusion, but other diseases such as TB and Hepatitis C are on the increase globally. It may come as something of a shock to learn that estimates put the number of HIV infections from donated blood at between 5 and 10% worldwide.

Add this to a global estimate of nearly 20million cases annually of Hepatitis and you can see how big the problem is.People from the UK aren’t allowed to donate blood in the USA (if they’ve spent three concurrent months in England between 1980 and 1996) because of American fears over CJD – also known as ‘Mad Cow Disease’.

We are rapidly reaching a point where, however much we need blood to survive, the thought of a transfusion from someone else fills us with dread.However sacred blood might be in some religious faiths, there is a pressing need to try finding a synthetic, safe alternative, but how viable this idea is remains very much unknown.

It’s really only in the last century that science has begun to make sense of just how complex blood actually is.Ancient Greek Galen of Pergamum was the first to study it in the second century AD.His work on animal organs led to a much greater understanding of the human body and influenced medical thinking for over 14 centuries.

It was common for ‘doctors’ to bleed patients in olden times, believing that this allowed the body to purge itself of the ailment afflicting it.Blood was also thought to carry the spirit of the owner within it and African hunters would drink the blood of a Lion they had killed in order to gain its courage.

The problem was that nobody actually understood the method of transporting blood around the body until the 17th century, when researcher William Harvey finally demonstrated the fact of circulation with the heart as the central pump.This prompted a wealth of weird experiments one of which led directly to the idea of transfusion.

A dog was bled almost to death then given blood from another, which caused it to revive. Though it was to be another 100 years before human-to-human transfusions started, the ball was certainly rolling.The stumbling block was that not all patients reacted well to donated blood, and it wasn’t until Karl Landsteiner – an Austrian doctor – made the discovery of different blood groups in 1901 that safer transfusions became a reality.

Preservation was now the major setback for blood coagulates on contact with air.Transfusions could only be carried out on an immediate, person-to-person basis because it couldn’t be stored.The anticoagulant Sodium Citrate was discovered in 1915 – enabling storage for loner periods – something medical staff, especially those working in the field during WWI were eternally grateful for.

It was 1926 before the British Red Cross began the world’s first human blood transfusion service, but by the 1930’s blood banks were springing up in the US in Cinncinati, Miami, New York and San Francisco.During WWII rousing posters encouraged US citizens to give freely.It’s hardly surprising that the Nazis in Germany were woefully short of supplies – Jewish blood was ‘unclean’ to those misguided people.

Attitudes changed a lot after the war, and in the US, some blood banks becamecommercial enterprises, though this never happened in England or France.Cash for blood in the US became known as ‘college boy’s beer money’ as students sold it to fund their social lives.This ‘bought’ blood became subject to industrial processing and that’s when the problems started to surface.

Donor testing was less thorough then, however and many lives were needlessly lost through uninvited infections.Blood donation still had a very positive side to it, though and people such as haemophiliacs benefited enormously from blood by-product discoveries.

It’s a sobering thought, however, that only 17% of the world population has access to 60% of the 75million units of blood that are given each year.Third world countries get a very bad deal in this respect because they don’t have the infrastructure they need to set up a proper service.


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