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Lincoln – September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, designated by Congress to help focus attention on the need for research and treatment of this global health problem. Sickle cell diseases affect more than 50,000 Americans, primarily those of African heritage; 1 in 8 is a carrier of a sickle cell trait and many don't know they have it.
The sickle cells block the flow of blood through vessels resulting in lung tissue damage (acute chest syndrome), pain episodes (commonly in the arms, legs, chest, and abdomen), stroke, and priapism (painful prolonged and unwanted erection). It also causes damage to most organs including the spleen, kidneys, eyes, and liver. Damage to the spleen makes sickle cell disease patients, especially young children, easily infected by certain bacteria. Therefore, any fever in someone with sickle cell disease must be taken very seriously. Sickle cells are destroyed rapidly in the body of people with the disease, thus causing anemia, jaundice, and the formation of gallstones.
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is usually found at birth with a blood test during routine newborn screening tests. A second blood test (called a hemoglobin electrophoresis) will confirm the diagnosis. This genetic condition is inherited when a child receives two sickle cell genes, one from each parent. A person with SCD can pass the disease on to his or her children. Sickle cell trait (SCT) is not a disease; it means that a person has inherited the sickle cell gene from one of his or her parents. People with SCT usually do not have any of the symptoms of SCD and live a normal life, but they can pass the sickle cell gene on to their children. Approximately 2,000 babies are born with SCD annually in the U.S.
SCT is very common in certain ethnic groups, so it is important to know trait status. About 9% of African Americans in the United States have SCT but only about 16% of adults of childbearing age in the United States know they have SCT, even though newborn screening has been in place in most states since at least the 1990s. When both parents have SCT, they have a 25% chance of having a child with SCD with every pregnancy. When both parents have SCT, they have a 50% chance of having a child with SCT with every pregnancy. About one out of every 375 African-American children is affected by sickle cell disease, making it one of the most prevalent genetic diseases in the United States.
The best way to find out if and how SCD runs in someone's family is for that person to see a genetic counselor. These professionals have experience with genetic blood disorders and may specialize in prenatal genetic counseling. The genetic counselor will look at the person's family history and discuss what is known about SCD in the person's family.
Women can have a healthy pregnancy with early prenatal care and careful monitoring throughout the pregnancy. However, women with SCD are more likely to have problems during pregnancy that can affect their health and that of their preborn baby. A woman and her partner should get tested for SCT if they are planning to have a baby. Testing is available at most hospitals or medical centers, from SCD community-based organizations, or at local health departments. If a woman or her partner has SCT, a genetic counselor can provide information to discuss the risks to their children.
These guidelines should be followed after a diagnosis of sickle cell disease has been confirmed:
Health maintenance for patients with sickle cell disease starts with early diagnosis and includes penicillin prophylaxis, vaccination against pneumococcus bacteria, and folic acid supplementation.
Treatment of complications often includes antibiotics, pain management, intravenous fluids, blood transfusion, and surgery all backed by psychosocial support. Like all patients with chronic disease, patients are best managed in a comprehensive multi-disciplinary program of care. The majority of individuals with SCD live well into adulthood. Bone marrow (stem cell) transplants can, in some cases, cure sickle cell disease, but not all individuals are eligible for this procedure and there are associated risks.
For more information visit: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/sicklecell/. Local health departments may provide a list of support services within the community and have information on early intervention services. In Lincoln, call (402) 471-6733 or visit: https://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Newborn-Screening.aspx