If you’re black, you should know about sickle cell anemia. About 1 in 12 black Americans carries the gene for the sickle cell trait (that is, they have the ability to produce children with sickle cell anemia, but have no symptoms of the disease). If both parents carry the trait, the chance of having a child with sickle cell anemia is one out of four, or 25 percent. (This trait occurs only in the black population).
Red blood cells are normally round. In sickle cell anemia, the red blood cells take on a sickle shape. This makes the blood thicker and affects the red blood cell’s ability to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. The disease usually doesn’t become apparent until the end of the child’s first year. As many as one out of four affected children will die, usually before 5 years of age.
Signs and Symptoms
A blood test can detect sickle cell anemia, but signs and symptoms include the following:
- Pain, ranging from mild to severe, in the chest, joints, back, or abdomen.
- Swollen hands and feet.
- Repeated infections, particularly pneumonia or meningitis.
- Kidney failure.
- Gallstones (at an early age).
- Strokes (at an early age).
Treatment, Care and Prevention
For now, no medicines exist to effectively treat sickle cell anemia. At best, treatment is geared toward preventing complications. Painful episodes are treated with painkillers, fluids, and oxygen. The diet is supplemented with folate. Because people with sickle cell anemia are prone to developing pneumonia, they should be vaccinated against pneumonia.
The only possible way to prevent sickle cell anemia is to find out whether or not you carry the genes for the disease before you get pregnant and avoid giving birth to children with the disease. Black couples should have a blood test to determine if either one is a carrier.
After conception, sickle cell anemia can be diagnosed by amniocentesis in the second trimester of pregnancy. If the fetus has sickle cell anemia, the parents may elect to terminate the pregnancy.
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