Blood service calls for plasma donors to top up "anti-D" supplies to save babies in utero

Blood bond: Plasma donor Daniel Alexander, with his sister Kate Stendell and baby niece, Flora, aged four months. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.
Blood bond: Plasma donor Daniel Alexander, with his sister Kate Stendell and baby niece, Flora, aged four months. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

DANIEL Alexander did not fully appreciate the precious gift he was giving families by donating plasma each fortnight until it was needed closer to home.

Now he gets to look at his healthy and happy baby niece’s smiling face, knowing she benefited from lifesaving “anti-D” injections made from the blood of donors just like him.

Mr Alexander is one of only 130 Australian donors, and the only Hunter donor, whose blood is used to make anti-D – an injection given to 17 per cent of women during pregnancy to prevent unborn babies from developing haemolytic disease of the foetus and newborn, also known as HDN.

The potentially fatal condition can occur if the mother has a negative blood type, and the unborn baby has a positive blood type.

In HDN cases, the mother’s blood develops an antibody that destroys her unborn child’s red blood cells, which can cause severe spleen and liver problems, brain damage, and death.

Mr Alexander’s sister, Kate Stendell, needed to have anti-D injections during, and just after, her pregnancy.

She had a negative blood type, but her baby – Flora – had a positive blood type.

“Because it takes six-to-12 months to develop the antibodies, the first child is usually alright,” Mr Alexander said. “But any subsequent babies could have progressively bad outcomes. If Kate had had any positive blood transfusions, though, the antibodies could have already developed, and could have affected Flora.”

The anti-D injections trick the mother’s blood into not creating the antibodies that would attack her baby, and any future positive blood-type babies. 

They protect about 40,000 babies from developing HDN, and save about 1600 babies in NSW from stillbirth each year.

The condition can still affect one in every six newborns in Australia, but anti-D donors like Mr Alexander have helped to save thousands of families from the profound heartbreak of losing a child.

“I had been a regular plasma donor, and I saw they were calling for people with negative blood to sign up for the program. I went down to Sydney for the first blood transfusion, and from then I developed the antibodies to make the anti-D,” he said.

“I know now how much of an impact it can have. Hearing the stories of what happens if you don’t have the injections... it’s good to know you can help out.”

September marks 50 years since anti-D was first given to Australian women, revolutionising childbirth and gifting two million women the chance to bring healthy babies into the world. The Australian Red Cross Blood Service is calling for more people to roll up their sleeves to donate plasma. 

Since the first anti-D donation, the science has continued to evolve and improve, Australian Red Cross Blood Service spokesperson Jemma Falkenmire said.

For 50 years, many of the women who had HDN-affected babies worked to ensure others did not suffer the same tragedy by providing the first anti-D.

Ms Falkenmire said these women, who had lost babies or watched them grow up brain-damaged, deaf or with other permanent impairments due to HDN, were asked to help others do what they could not.

“They were all very much united in wanting to save other women from the same suffering,” she said.

But more recently, men have also been recruited to become donors.

“For example, by giving Daniel small injections of positive blood, he is producing the same reaction as a mother suffering HDN,” Ms Falkenmire said.

“But there is no baby at risk, which is the big benefit.”

The Australian Red Cross Blood Service is calling for more people to roll up their sleeves to donate plasma.

Mr Alexander has made 357 plasma donations since becoming a donor during his university years.

His plasma had been used to make anti-D for the past five years.