Sickle cell disease

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Overview

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood disorder that causes blood cells to become hard, sticky and shaped like a sickle or "C." As a result, while traveling through the blood vessels, cells may become stuck and block the flow of blood throughout the body. This may cause a variety of symptoms and medical problems, including bacterial infections, pain, tissue damage, stroke and anemia. Blocked blood flow also can cause damage to the spleen, kidneys and liver.

Normal red blood cells are smooth, donut-shaped and contain hemoglobin A, which helps red blood cells transport oxygen through the blood vessels to the body. People with sickle cell anemia have red blood cells that contain hemoglobin S, an abnormal type of hemoglobin that causes the sickle shape change.

An estimated 70,000 people in the United States have sickle cell disease and 1,000 babies each year are born with the condition. It affects primarily people of African descent as well as fewer numbers of those of Portuguese, Spanish, French Corsican, Sardinian, Sicilian, Italian, Greek and Turkish descent. The disease also appears in Cypriots and those from Middle Eastern countries and Asia.

Signs & symptoms

Children with sickle cell anemia may develop a variety of related symptoms, ranging in severity. And while some children with the condition are usually healthy, others may experience frequent problems, including:

  • Acute Chest Syndrome — This is a potentially life-threatening condition that should be treated in a hospital. Caused by an infection or blocked blood vessels in the lung, the condition is similar to pneumonia.
  • Anemia — Red blood cells containing hemoglobin S do not live as long as normal red blood cells, resulting in a low blood count, a condition called anemia.
  • Hand-Foot Syndrome — Often the first symptom in affected babies, occurring with a fever, hands and feet swell when blood vessels become blocked by sickle cells.
  • Infections — Infants and children with sickle cell disease are especially prone to bacterial infections, such as those that cause meningitis and blood infections. Such infections are a leading cause of death in infants and young children with sickle cell disease. They can be prevented by immunization and prophylactic penicillin.
  • Pain Episodes — The most common symptom of sickle cell disease, pain episodes occur in any place in the body where sickle cells collect and block blood vessels. Episodes vary in length and frequency for each person.
  • Slow Growth — Anemia may cause a child to have slow growth, delayed puberty, pale complexion, tire easily and experience shortness of breath.
  • Stroke — An estimated 10 percent of children with sickle cell anemia develop symptoms of a stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked, and another 20 percent are found to have clinically silent strokes by MRI imaging of their brains. Stroke may result in permanent disability or learning problems. However, doctors are now able to identify most children who are at an increased risk of having a symptomatic stroke with a special ultrasound exam.
  • Tissue Damage — When sickle cells block small blood vessels, the amount of blood received by certain parts of the body is reduced. Tissue that does not receive an adequate amount of blood will eventually become damaged.
  • Vision Problems — Vision problems and in some cases, blindness, may occur when blood vessels in the eye become blocked by sickle cells.

Diagnosis

More than 40 states in the United States screen newborn babies for sickle cell anemia. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent some of the complications of the condition. Studies have shown that early treatment dramatically reduces the risk of infections caused by sickle cell anemia and associated deaths in children with the condition.

In addition, prenatal tests are available to determine if a baby will have sickle cell disease or sickle cell trait, 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, but means that a person is a carrier of the sickle cell gene. People with sickle cell trait are generally healthy and the trait cannot turn into the disease. However, when two people with sickle cell trait have a child, their child may inherit two sickle cell genes — one from each parent — and have the disorder.

Couples planning to have a baby can have a simple and painless blood test to determine their type of hemoglobin to see if they have sickle cell trait or a form of sickle cell anemia. Genetic counselors are available to discuss the results of the test and the likelihood of a couple's child having sickle cell trait or disease.

Treatment

People with sickle cell anemia who live in the United States have an average life expectancy of 45 years. There are a variety of effective medications available to help reduce complications and improve survival. However, at this time, there is no universal cure, although a very few children worldwide have been cured through a blood stem cell transplant. The stem cells come from a sibling's bone marrow, or less frequently, from umbilical cord blood. However, most children with sickle cell anemia do not have a sibling who is a good genetic match. In addition, stem cell transplants are a risky procedure and don't always cure the disease.

Early treatment of newborns includes penicillin, vaccination against pneumococcus bacteria and folic acid supplementation.

Standard treatments for complications of sickle cell anemia include antibiotics, pain management, intravenous fluids, blood transfusion and surgery.

Hydroxyurea is a new treatment for sickle cell anemia that reduces the frequency of pain episodes, acute chest syndrome and the need for blood transfusions in adults. Studies are currently underway to determine the proper dosage of hydroxyeurea for children. Researchers also are investigating similar drugs for children to reduce the number of complications and improve survival, as well as new approaches to gene therapy.

UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your child's doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your child's provider.

Where to get care (2)

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Sickle Cell Anemia Center

Sickle Cell Anemia Center

747 52nd St.
Oakland, CA 94609

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Hematology Clinic

Hematology Clinic

San Francisco / Oakland / Santa Rosa / Walnut Creek

Recommended reading

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Raising a Child with Sickle Cell Disease: Tips for Parents

If your child has sickle cell disease, these tips can help you monitor their health, prevent illness and know when to call your child's doctor.

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