A story coursing through your veins
donations to keep supplies up.
From transfusion to leeching, Rose informs us that there are only half a dozen suppliers of medical leeches in the world. She visits one business in Wales and discovers that the creatures can inject their own anaesthetic and emit “the best anti-coagulant known to man”. They can, terrifyingly, also escape from the tanks they’re kept in.
In the Blood Borne chapter, there is an eloquent account of the stigma surrounding Aids in the 1980s and the ongoing worldwide battle to eradicate diseases like HIV, Zika and the Ebola virus. In 2017, she points out that the US government changed its website from Aids.gov to HIV.gov, because due to advancement in treatment “now hardly any Americans die of AIDS”. It contrasts hugely with the situation in South Africa, where “blessers” – young girls who have transactional sex with older men for money or gifts – often end up with HIV.
Another kind of stigmatised shame is dealt with in chapters on attitudes to menstruation and feminine hygiene. In parts of rural India, the practice of chaupadi still exists, where menstruating girls are banished to small huts, have no contact with their family and permitted to eat only rice. Some have died of exposure or snakebites; others have been raped.
Elsewhere in the country, girls have benefitted from cheap sanitary products created by Muraga, an Indian social entrepreneur dubbed the “Menstrual Man”. For research, he wore a fake uterus made from a football filled with goat blood. George meets him, and many others, interviewing and managing to be both empathetic and no-nonsense, inquiring but not intrusive. Part of this empathy relates to George herself: she is a frequent blood donor, an endometriosis sufferer with difficult periods, and is going through menopause.
The book is full of striking facts and disturbing stories: leeches need to be exercised twice a day; clinical vampirism; studies into whether animals are attracted to menstrual blood; “blood bikers” who voluntarily deliver blood to UK hospitals; the 2008 case in Gorakhpur in India, where poor migrant men were being bled to death as blood slaves.
What’s notable about George’s work – and, in particular, this book – is her approach to the subject and how deftly she communicates vast tracts of information. George has clearly undertaken a huge volume of research and travel, but it’s presented engagingly, often sardonically. The reader rarely feels bombarded with academic science or medicalese, unlike many books in this area which scare off readers. Nine Pints is a hugely intelligent, humane and riveting work, and from illness to industry, George is an engaging guide through the bloodstream.
‘‘ In the West, we take for granted the availability of safe, accessible donations, but it’s a complicated industry, which varies from country to country, and not just around safety protocols
An IV containing blood, “a medicine, a lifesaver and a commodity that is dearer than oil”. Left: author Rose George.