Friday 3 July, 2020

Sickle cell disease: Why testing is important

(Image: Red blood cells)

(Image: Red blood cells)

Sickle cell disease is caused by a faulty gene that affects how red blood cells develop. If both parents have this gene (called sickle cell trait), there is a 25% chance their child will be born with sickle cell disease.

People born with sickle cell disease can experience symptoms that include painful episodes called sickle cell crises, which can be very severe and can last up to a week, as well as an increased risk of infection and anaemia.

While screening for sickle cell disease in the Cayman Islands has been in place since the early 1970’s for high-risk families, and since the 1980’s for school entry screening, routine newborn screening has been in place since 1997. This has helped in early identification of sickle cell trait and disease with appropriate counseling and management. Currently, there are 42 persons in the Cayman Islands with sickle cell disease known to the Public Health Department.

Each year, the Public Health Department recommends that persons with sickle cell get the flu shot as the disorder is an underlying disease and could result in complications. For this same reason, considering COVID-19, the Health Services Authority stresses that these persons should:

• practice physical distancing
• wear a mask or face covering when in public enclosed places
• wash hands frequently (and for at least 20 seconds with soap and water) or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available
• stay home and leave only if necessary
• seek medical help if having symptoms

“As the world faces new ways of living due to COVID-19, it is especially important that persons with sickle cell disorder proactively protect themselves when it comes to possible exposure to the virus and other infectious diseases,” said Joy Merren, Genetics Coordinator at the Health Services Authority. “Eating healthy whole foods, getting adequate sleep, exercising within one’s own limits (remembering to pace oneself), finding time to relax and laugh and finding a safe person to speak with when times are difficult, all help in protecting the body from infectious and environmental insults. The old adage, “Prevention better than cure” holds true in this situation”.

“It is important to test for sickle cell trait as this information can help parents make informed reproductive choices. If someone has the sickle cell trait, it is important to know if one’s partner is also a carrier. If both parents are sickle cell carriers, with each pregnancy, there is a 25% risk of having a child with sickle cell disease,” Mrs. Merren stated.

A Sickle Cell Support Group meets three to four times a year.

For further information, please contact Mrs. Merren on 244-2630 at the Public Health Department.

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