Blood, blood banks, and blood-borne epidemics

I picked up Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, before my honeymoon. I had intended to read it in Cuba, but there really wasn’t space in our luggage with all the other books I brought. So it sat on deck for months until I got around to it.

Like most good books, I found myself stealing reads of Blood in every spare moment until I’d finished. Starting in the mid-1600’s, Douglas Starr describes how “bleeding” became the catch-all remedy for doctors (translate that as “butchers” in the 17th century) everywhere. For hundreds of years the practice of bleeding, and subsequently, transfusion, infected and killed thousands of people (including George Washington) under the watchful lancets of well-meaning surgeons. Not really until statistics and record-keeping became a medical researcher’s prime tool did bleeding finally lose it’s warm glow.

The book then profiles the history of blood donation, blood banks, and the use of blood in World War I and II. Borne out of a history public service, sacrifice, and unfortunately, competition, the concept of blood donation was so poorly regulated that someone receiving a transfusion was historically exposed to a number of diseases, including syphilis, malaria, and finally, HIV. More recently, we have begun to see the emergence of Mad Cow throughout the world, and as recently as 1994, a blood donor in the US was found to have given blood right before dying of the human version of mad cow. While all the blood from that donor was destroyed, it underscored the fact that we can’t, and don’t (even today) screen our blood supply for diseases that we don’t know of or understand.

This was tragically illustrated by the HIV debacle in the blood transfusion system. Worldwide, thousansd of hemophiliacs, the most frequent consumers of blood products, were infected and later died because we didn’t understand the disease, and when we did, we did not act fast enough. Even after HIV screening was available, hemophiliacs continued to consume tainted blood products because governments did not want to alarm the populace and potentially cause a blood supply shortage. (Not to mention the cost involved.)

I cannot recommend this book enough. Even if you are particularly squeamish, this book will not make you more so. There is little, if any gore, and the stories of blood donors during wartime are enough to make you want to run out and give blood right away.

Goand buy this book from Amazon.Com, and make 3Mouths Editors happy.