4 out of 5 stars

I gave my first pint of blood at the age of 18. There were two reasons for doing so, I had just started riding a motorcycle and thought I would make a moral deposit just in case and the other reason was that I could get 45 minutes off as they came to my workplace. I have given fifty pints before stopping for a variety of reasons. Several armfuls, in the words of Hancock.

Blood is the stuff of life. We have around nine pints of it flowing endlessly and continuously around our bodies for our entire life. It carries our immune system, oxygen and waste products around the body and yet for some people the very sight of it outside our skin can make them faint.

Removing blood from bodies to cure has been going on for centuries, doctors would think nothing of bloodletting people in the vain hope of finding a cure. A more repulsive way of removing blood is by using leeches, something that I thought had stopped ages ago, but they are still in use by medical professionals today. Her first visit on this bloody tour is to a leech farm in Wales where she meets the man breeding them for use today. It turns out that they are pretty much essential is operations where body parts have been reattached, if the microsurgeon is having trouble with the veins then he will use a leech; the way that they draw blood through to the reattached helps decongest veins.

George head back to her Oxford College, Sommerville to discover more about Dame Janet Maria Vaughan. It was because of her that blood transfusion, that removal of blood from someone else and passing it onto another person with the hope of saving their life became a standard practice. As well as giving life, infected blood can make the recipient of the donation ill. To see how it affects people she heads to the township of Khayelitsha in South Africa. She is there to try to understand why being a young black woman in Africa is a death sentence. The killer here is HIV and at the time the book was written South Africa had increasing rates of infection.

One of the more useful parts of blood is plasma. Unlike blood where a match in blood groups is needed it can be transferred between any two people. This makes it very useful and because of that, it gives it a high a value. In the UK we do not get paid for donations, this is considered the gold standard, but elsewhere money is offered for donations of blood and plasma. It is found that those that donate this way are sometimes less than truthful about their past medical and sexual history. There are lots of haemophiliacs who were passed infected plasma and now carry with them HIV. It is quite a scandal and it has really been brushed under the table.
Each and every month women menstruate. Even though there are TV adverts for various products for women in the UK, it is a taboo subject. In other parts of the world, women who are menstruating are banned from participating in normal family life and are seen as unclean until it has passed. She meets Arunachalam Muruganantham in India who saw what was happening to women at that time of the month and has developed a really cheap pad that women of all castes there can afford to buy.

There are lots of other things that George talks about in this very readable and endlessly fascinating book. Not only is it well written, but it comes across as well researched without feeling dry and academic. Quite a sizable chunk on menstrual blood – which is good, this subject should not remain hidden and shameful. If you like reading non-fiction books that explore subjects that you wouldn’t normally consider, then this, like her book, Deep Sea and Foreign Going about the container shipping industry, then this might be for you.

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