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Understanding sickle cell disease: What our people should know

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By Batou Saidy

Sickle cell disease is a public health problem. The United Nations created World Sickle Cell Day in 2006 to be observed on June 19 annually. This aims to raise global awareness on it as a public health problem. Essentially, the World Sickle Cell Day falls within the Public Health Awareness Week of the Association of Public and Environmental Health Officers of The Gambia (APEHOG). So, Baba’s oil falls into his “Mbahal” there. Haha.

Etiology

Sickle cell disease is a group of inherited red blood cell disorders. Basically, it distorts the shape of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of the body. Usually, red blood cells have round shape, with flexibility to move in the blood vessels easily. But with sickle cell disease, these round red blood cells turn rigid and get sticky, taking up a sickle shape, which then often slows or blocks blood flow in the blood vessels.

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People with it can also live their full lives and enjoy most of the activities that other people do. However, it encompasses some severe complications, depending on the type that one inherits.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of sickle cell disease vary from one person to another, liable to change with time. Usually, they manifest as early as six months into life. Its symptoms include: Anemia – where sickle cells break apart easily and die.

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Painful episodes – these are called sickle cell crises.

Swelling of hands and feet – this is caused by blood circulation blockage in the hands and feet.

Frequent infections: this results from weakened organs that up vulnerability to infections.

Delayed growth or puberty: this results from inadequate healthy red blood cells that supply the oxygen and nutrients the body needs to grow.

Treatment

Treatment measure for sickle cell disease is very limited. Antibiotics largely only caresses the pain. So far, the only known cure for sickle cell disease is ‘stem cell transplantation’. And due to scarcity of matched donors, this is available to very limited number of patients, unfortunately.

Prevention

As public health officers, it is our unbridled concern to prevent the disease, which is very possible. By assessing the risk factors, we understand that: for a baby to be born with sickle cell anemia, both parents must carry a sickle cell gene. So, this is why it is important for couples to do compatibility test to eliminate all chances of parenting a child thereof.

Misconceptions

Sickle cell disease is just a genetic disorder that people are born with. You can’t catch it later on in your life, and it’s not contagious. This means that it can’t be transferred from one person to another after birth.

Yet, it doesn’t mean that you can’t marry a person with sickle cell. The health advice is that: two people with the sickle cell gene shouldn’t marry each other. But if one has the gene whereas the other partner doesn’t, they can get married and live together peacefully forevermore.

Batou Saidy is a Public Health Officer and a writer.  

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