11 Things You May Not Know About Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle cell disease affects approximately 100,000 people in the United States and millions worldwide. It occurs in about one out of every 500 black or African-American births and one out of every 36,000 Hispanic-American births. Let's review some facts about sickle cell disease—an inherited form of anemia, where red blood cells become abnormally long and pointed, similar to the shape of a sickle.

Sickle Cell Awareness Month

Sickle Cells
Sickle Cells. Stocktrek Images/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month. The Sickle Cell Disease Association of America was instrumental in this proposal, and it was officially recognized in 1983.  

Can Occur in Any Race or Ethnic Group

World Map
World Map. Jens Magnusson/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Although sickle cell disease has long been associated with people of African descent, it can be found in many races and ethnic groups, including Spanish, Brazilian, Indian, and even Caucasian. 

An Inherited Disease

Sickle cell disease is not contagious like a cold. People with it inherited it from their parents and are born with it. Additionally, people with sickle cell trait cannot develop sickle cell disease.   

Diagnosed at Birth

In the United States, every baby is tested for sickle cell disease. This is part of the newborn screen performed shortly after birth. Identifying children with sickle cell disease in infancy can prevent serious complications.  

Sickle Cell Trait and Malaria

Sickle cell trait can protect an individual from becoming infected with malaria. This doesn't mean a person with sickle cell trait cannot be infected with malaria, but it is less common than a person without sickle cell trait. 

Not All Types Are Created Equal

There are different types of sickle cell disease. The most common is hemoglobin SS, but there are also hemoglobin SC and sickle beta thalassemia. The type of sickle cell disease a person inherits determines the severity of the disease.   

More Than Just Pain

There is a lot more to sickle cell disease than just painful crises. Sickle cell disease is a disorder of the red blood cells, which supply oxygen to all the organs. Because sickle cell disease occurs in the blood, every organ can be affected. Patients with SCD are at risk for stroke, eye disease, gallstones, serious bacterial infections, and anemia, to name a few.  

Children at Risk for Stroke

People don’t think about strokes occurring in children, but children with sickle cell disease have a higher risk than the general population. Physicians who treat children with sickle cell disease use an ultrasound of the brain to screen patients to determine who is at highest risk of stroke and start treatment to prevent stroke.  

A Simple Antibiotic Changes Life Expectancy

Penicillin is life-saving. Patients with sickle cell disease are at increased risk of serious bacterial infections. Starting penicillin twice a day for the first five years of life has changed the life expectancy from childhood to adulthood. 

Treatments Are Available

There is more than pain medication for treating sickle cell disease. Today, blood transfusions and medicine called hydroxyurea are changing the lives of people with SCD. These therapies are allowing people with sickle cell disease to live longer lives with fewer complications.  

There Is a Cure

Bone marrow transplantation is the only cure. The best success has come from donors who are matched-siblings to the patient with sickle cell disease, but there are trials ongoing looking at other possible donors. In the coming years, gene therapy looks like a promising treatment.   

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