Sickle Cell Anemia
Having a baby can be a very exciting experience, but it can also be a very scary one. After all, there is so much to worry about, from having a miscarriage to passing along a chromosomal abnormality. If you are worried about passing on sickle cell anemia to your baby, it is important to be tested and to have your baby screened. Sickle cell anemia can affect your baby's red blood cells, leaving her fatigued, weak, and prone to infection or illness.
What is Sickle Cell Anemia?
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood disorder that affects about 70,000 Americans. It occurs when the hemoglobin in your blood is abnormal. Hemoglobin is a doughnut-shaped protein found in red blood cells; it is necessary for cell health, as it helps to deliver oxygen throughout your body. Sickle cell anemia can cause a number of symptoms and is often associated with serious complications, like stroke and heart failure. Because of these complications, sickle cell anemia is considered a fatal disease, with most sufferers dying between the ages of 40 and 55.
Causes of Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell anemia is caused by a defect in a personï¿½s hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells. It helps to carry oxygen to all your different body parts. Typically, hemoglobin is doughnut-shaped, and able to travel through blood vessels quite easily.
In sickle cell disease though, this hemoglobin becomes moon (or sickle) shaped, and cannot fit through the blood vessels properly. As a result, people with sickle-cell anemia donï¿½t get enough oxygen delivered throughout their bodies causing extreme fatigue. These sickle-shaped cells can also clog the blood vessels, causing tissue damage, organ failure, and even death.
How Do You Get Sickle Cell Anemia?
Sickle cell anemia is a hereditary birth defect. This means that it is passed on from parent to child during conception.
Everyone carries genes that are responsible for creating hemoglobin. Some people carry the defective sickle cell hemoglobin gene. If you and your partner both have this sickle cell gene, it will be passed on to your child. As a result, your child will develop sickle cell anemia.
If you carry the sickle cell gene and your partner does not, your child will become a carrier of the sickle cell gene. He will not experience any sickle cell symptoms, but may be able to pass the gene along to his children. People who carry the sickle cell gene but do not have sickle cell anemia are said to have "sickle cell trait".
Who Gets Sickle Cell Anemia?
It appears that only certain people are at risk for developing the sickle cell birth defect. The disorder tends to affect certain cultures more than others, and you are at increased risk for getting sickle cell anemia if you are:
- African American
Sickle cell anemia is most common among African Americans, with about 2 million African Americans carrying the sickle cell trait.
Symptoms of Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell symptoms tend to vary from person to person. They also tend to increase in severity as you age. Common sickle cell symptoms include:
- pain in the stomach, legs, and arms
- chest pain
- extreme fatigue
- growth problems
- frequent illness and infection
Complications of Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell anemia is a very dangerous illness because it is associated with so many complications. These complications can be life threatening and require immediate attention from your health care professional. Possible complications include:
- Vision Loss: Sickle-shaped hemoglobin cells can block the tiny blood vessels surrounding the eyes, causing vision loss.
- Organ Damage: Blocked blood vessels can cut off blood and oxygen supply to key organs, including the liver, kidney, and spleen.
- Stroke: Blocked blood vessels can prevent oxygen from getting to the brain, causing a stroke.
- Acute Chest Syndrome: People with sickle cell anemia are highly susceptible to infection. Acute chest syndrome is similar to pneumonia and can cause fever, pain, and breathing problems.
Screening for Sickle Cell Anemia
If you are pregnant or thinking about having a child, it is a good idea to get tested for the sickle cell gene, especially if you belong to a high-risk group. You and your partner can be given a simple blood test to see if either of you carry the sickle cell gene. If either of you has the sickle cell gene, you may choose to have your baby screened for the disease.
Amniocentesis can be performed between the 14th and 16th week of pregnancy to determine if your child has sickle cell anemia. A sample of your amniotic fluid is extracted and then analyzed for the gene. This can help prepare you for raising a child with sickle cell disease.
Treatment for Sickle Cell Anemia
There is no cure for sickle cell anemia. However, if your child develops sickle cell anemia, there are a variety of treatments available. Treatment usually revolves around preventing infection and restoring healthy red blood cells to the body. Common treatments include:
- penicillin injections to prevent and fight infections
- pain medications
- folic acid supplements, to help grow new red blood cells
- blood transfusions, to increase the number of healthy red blood cells
- bone marrow transplants to help the body create healthy red blood cells