A story cours­ing through your veins

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - SINÉAD GLEE­SON

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.

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