Sickle Cell Disease
WHAT IS SICKLE CELL DISEASE?
Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) is an inherited blood disorder that affects the primary oxygen-carrying component of blood, the hemoglobin in red blood cells (erythrocytes). Red blood cells contain a protein-iron compound called hemoglobin (Hgb). When blood flows through the lungs, the hemoglobin picks up oxygen. Blood is then pumped by the heart to the body, where the hemoglobin releases the oxygen to the tissues. Except for the first few months of life, when fetal hemoglobin persists in all infants, normal red blood cells contain hemoglobin A. Persons with sickle cell disease have mostly Hemoglobin S. Red blood cells containing Hemoglobin S do not live as long as those with Hgb A (about 16 [10-20] days vs. 90-120). This leads to a shortage of red blood cells, a condition called anemia.
Normal red blood cells maintain a discoid (like a donut without a hole) shape even when they have released their oxygen. When “sickle” red blood cells give up their oxygen they become sickle, or crescent shaped. These cells don’t move easily through the blood vessels. They tend to get stuck and block the flow of blood. When this happens, the blood supply to the tissues and organs is reduced. Eventually this causes the complications of sickle cell disease, such as fatigue, breathlessness, rapid heartbeat, delayed growth, susceptibility to infections, skin ulcers, and vision problems.
Sickle cells are destroyed rapidly in the bodies of people with the disease, causing anemia, jaundice and the formation of gallstones.
The sickle cells also block the flow of blood through vessels resulting in lung tissue damage (acute chest syndrome), pain episodes (arms, legs, chest and abdomen), stroke and priapism (painful prolonged erection). It also causes damage to most organs including the spleen, kidneys and liver. Damage to the spleen makes sickle cell disease patients, especially young children, easily overwhelmed by certain bacterial infections.
HOW DO YOU GET SICKLE CELL DISEASE?
The only way you can get sickle cell disease is by genetic inheritance. You cannot get sickle cell disease by contact or by blood transfusions. People with sickle cell disease either have sickle cell trait or sickle cell anemia. The difference between sickle cell trait and sickle cell anemia lies in the inheritance pattern of the sickle cell gene. As sickle cell is a genetic disorder, anyone whose parent has the gene for sickle cell disease has a chance of at least having sickle cell trait. However, both parents must have the sickle gene in order for a child to have sickle cell disease.
Sickle cell conditions are inherited from parents in much the same way as blood type, hair color and texture, eye color and other physical traits. The types of hemoglobin a person makes in the red blood cells depend upon what hemoglobin genes the person inherits from his or her parents. Like most genes, hemoglobin genes are inherited in two sets, one from each parent. (It is not possible to acquire sickle cell trait or disease by contact with affected persons, from transfusions, or by any means.)
- Unaffected persons have two copies of the gene for Hgb A (AA). Persons with the sickle cell trait have one copy of each gene (AS). Persons with the disease have two copies of the Hgb S gene (SS).
- If one parent has Sickle Cell Anemia (SS) and the other is unaffected (AA), all children will have sickle cell trait (AS). If one parent has Sickle Cell Anemia (SS) and the other has Sickle Cell Trait (AS), there is a 50% chance (or 1 out of 2) of having a baby with either sickle cell disease (SS) or sickle cell trait (AS) with each pregnancy. There is no possibility of unaffected offspring.
- When both parents have Sickle Cell Trait, they have a 25% chance (1 of 4) of having a baby with sickle cell disease with each pregnancy. Thus It is possible that ALL children will be unaffected, or ALL children will have the trait, or ALL will have the disease.
- If neither parent has the trait, no children will have the trait or the disease.
HOMOZYGOUS AND HETEROZYGOUS
Genes are like blueprints or formulas which the body follows to make substances, including hgb. People who have inherited two copies of the gene for Hgb S (one from each parent) are homozygous and have sickle cell disease.
They cannot make normal (A) hgb. People who have inherited only one copy of the gene for Hemoglobin S have Sickle cell trait. They also have one gene for Hgb A and can make normal Hgb. People with sickle cell trait usually do not manifest any of the problems associated with sickle cell anemia. Rarely, people with sickle cell trait can exhibit sickling of red cells under conditions of extreme physical stress or low atmospheric oxygen.
The disease originated in at least 4 places in Africa and in the Indian/Saudi Arabian subcontinent. It exists in all countries of Africa and in areas where Africans have migrated.
The transatlantic slave trade was largely responsible for introducing the sickle cell gene into the Americas and the Caribbean. However, sickle cell disease had already spread from Africa to Southern Europe by the time of the slave trade, so it is present in Portuguese, Spaniards, French Corsicans, Sardinians, Sicilians, mainland Italians, Greeks, Turks and Cypriots.
Sickle cell disease appears in most of the Near and Middle East countries including Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen. The condition has also been reported in India and Sri Lanka. Sickle cell disease is an international health problem and truly a global challenge.
In the United States with an estimated population of over 270 million, about 1,000 babies are born with sickle cell disease each year.
IS THERE A CURE?
Presently, there is no cure for sickle cell anemia. Researchers believe that bone marrow transplantation may offer a cure in a small number of cases.
Health maintenance for patients with sickle cell disease starts with early diagnosis, preferably in the newborn period (most states include sickle cell testing in newborn screening) 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. Blood transfusions help benefit sickle cell disease patients by reducing recurrent pain crises, risk of stroke and other complications. Because red blood cells contain iron, and there is no natural way for the body to eliminate it, patients who receive repeated blood transfusions can accumulate iron in the body until it reaches toxic levels. It is important to remove excess iron from the body, because it can gather in the heart, liver, and other organs and may lead to organ damage. Treatments are available to eliminate iron overload.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE SICKLE CELL TRAIT?
The easiest way to find out if you have the trait is to be tested by a simple blood test, Hgb electrophoresis. For University of Illinois students, the sickle cell test is available at McKinley Health Center. If you have sickle cell trait and wish to become pregnant, you and your partner should have genetic counseling to determine your risks for having a child with sickle cell trait or disease. Sickle Cell trait (AS) is an inherited condition in which both hemoglobin A and S are produced in the red blood cells, always more A than S. Sickle cell trait is not a type of sickle cell disease. People with sickle cell trait are generally healthy.
Sickle Cell Disease Association of America at: http://www.sicklecelldisease.org
you are a registered University
of Illinois student and you have questions or concerns,
If you are concerned about any difference in your treatment plan and the information in this handout,
you are advised to contact your health care provider.
Visit the McKinley Health Center Web site at: http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu
© The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2007.
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