September is Sickle Cell Awareness Month, a time when doctors and patient advocates hope to spread awareness of a complex and often misunderstood medical condition.
Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to have a sickle or crescent shape, leaving patients in a chronic state of anemia. Regular blood transfusions are a key treatment for the condition.
Dr. Maa-Ohui Quarmyne, a pediatric hematologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said despite a commonly held belief, the condition is not limited to Black people.
“Sickle cell disease has generally been associated with people of African descent or African Americans,” she said, “but it’s also found in Asian, European descent, Indian descent, and even people from the Mediterranean.”
Quarmyne said the genetic condition is present at birth and is inherited through a gene from both parents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects as many as 100,000 people across the United States and occurs in one out of every 365 African Americans.
Sickle cell disease is considered to be both persistent and insidious. If it goes untreated, Quarmyne said, it can bring debilitating complications and even death at an early age.
“It affects almost every organ in the body,” she said, “and it can be quite an unrelenting disease, so that even patients who on the outside look well can have ongoing organ damage.”
Quarmyne said blood transfusions are crucial to relieving the symptoms of sickle cell, and there is an urgent need for blood donors, from a wide variety of races and ethnicities.
“It is ideal to have diversity in the donor pool, especially when you have sickle cell populations,” she said, “because a lot of patients tend to be minority patients.”
She said new drugs and bio-technologies – including gene therapy and genetically modified stem cells – are bringing better outcomes, but researchers have yet to find a cure.
To donate blood, contact your local blood bank or go online to AmericasBlood.org.