Sickle cell disease is a hereditary disorder caused by a mutation in the red blood cells that strikes an estimated 70,000 – 100,000 people in the United States, the majority of whom are African American. It is an inherited disorder, meaning that it is passed down from parents to their children. Sickle cell disease is caused by a genetic mutation in which red blood cells carry an abnormal form of haemoglobin, called haemoglobin S. As a result, the red blood cells become rigid and sickle shaped, which inhibits their ability to transport oxygen to the body’s organs.
The most common symptoms of sickle cell disease include varying degrees of fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), shortness of breath, enlargement and swelling of the spleen, although these can be mild in children and adolescents. In addition, susceptibility to infections, priapism (painful, persistent erections), joint and chest pain, and leg ulcers are all frequent and potentially serious complications of the disease. Over time, sickle cell disease can also cause damage to vital organs, including the kidneys and brain.
Treatment of sickle cell disease is focused on managing symptoms, preventing complications and reducing the intensity of pain episodes. A number of medications, such as hydroxyurea, painkillers and antibiotics, are available to help manage sickle cell symptoms. Supportive treatments, including blood transfusions, stem cell transplants, and bone marrow transplants, may also be part of a comprehensive treatment plan. In addition, lifestyle modifications, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate hydration are important to maintain overall health and protect against potential complications.
In recent years, several research projects have shown promise for those with sickle cell disease. New medical treatments, such as the use of gene therapy to replace the defective gene with a healthy one, are in the works, which could eventually lead to a dramatic decrease in symptoms and prevent further complications. With these advances, hopeful strides can be made for those with sickle cell disease and the quality of life for sufferers can be dramatically improved.