Rh disease (also Rhesus disease, Haemolytic Disease of the Newborn (HDNB) or Morbus haemolyticus neonatorum or erythroblastosis) is a condition that occurs when a Rh negative mother has given birth to a Rh positive baby and subsequently becomes pregnant with another Rh positive child. About 5% of at-risk pregnancies would result in still births or extremely sick babies. Many who managed to survive would be severely retarded. Once a woman gives birth to a baby with the disease, all subsequent babies would also have it. The connection between the Rh antigen and erythroblastosis was made in 1941 by Dr. Philip Levine. The treatment that came to be developed for the disease was blood transfusion, which was often ineffective or only partially ameliorative because the damage had already been done. Severely retarded children often resulted.
During the first pregnancy and the act of birth a small amount of the baby's blood may enter the mother's body. If the mother is Rh negative, her body produces antibodies (including IgG) against the Rhesus antigens on her baby's erythrocytes, if the baby is Rh positive. During the second pregnancy the IgG is able to pass through the placenta into the fetus, where it leads to agglutination and destruction of erythrocytes. The means to prevent this harmful disease is to vaccinate the mother immediately after the birth of her first child: she is treated with anti-Rh antibodies, so that the fetal erythrocytes are destroyed before her immune system can discover them.
This explanation of the etiology of the disease was first worked in 1960 out by Dr. Ronald Finn, a Liverpool, England native, who applied a microscopic technique for detecting fetal cells in the mother's blood. It lead him to propose that the disease might be prevented by injecting the at-risk mother with an antibody against fetal red blood cells. He proposed this for the first time to the public on February 18, 1960. A few months later, he proposed at a meeting of the British Genetical Society, that the antibody be anti-Rh. Nearly simultaneously with him, a group of researchers from New York City Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, John Gorman, Vince Freda, and Bill Pollack came to the same realization, and set out to prove it by injecting a group of male prisoners at Sing Sing Correctional Facility with anti-body supplied by Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation. Dr. Gorman's daughter-in-law was the first at risk woman to receive a prophylactic injection on January 31, 1964. Clinical trials by the two rival groups, and others quickly confirmed their hypothesis, and the vaccine was finally approved in England and the United states in 1968. Within a year or so, it had been injected with great success into more than 500,000 women. Time magazine picked it as one of the top ten medical achievements of the 1960's. By 1973, it was estimated that in the US alone, over 50,000 baby's lives had been saved.
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