Sickle cell anaemia is a group of disorders that affect the red blood cells. Sickle cell is a genetic condition meaning that it is passed on from your parents and cannot be contracted elsewhere.
Typical red blood cells are round, biconcave in shape, looking somewhat like a doughnut. They are flexible to allow them to move within vessels to transport blood and oxygen. Sickle cell stiffens the cell causing them to adopt a ‘sickle’ shape once they lose their oxygen. Haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells, is defective in sickle cells. This prevents the red blood cells from freely moving around the body and affecting the ever-so-important transportation of oxygen. This can cause severe physical pain. Normal red blood cells have a lifespan of 120 days, but sickle cells only live for 10-20 days.
Sickle cell can lead to the development of secondary disorders such as damage to vital organs including the liver, lungs and kidneys and it can also increase the likelihood of having a stroke. With fewer healthy red blood cells circulating the body, a person with sickle cell can develop severe anaemia.
1 in 79 babies born in the UK carry the sickle cell trait, meaning that the gene was inherited from one parent. 15000 people in the UK are living with this disorder and it predominantly affects people of African and Caribbean heritage. Sickle cell is more common in these heritages as sickle cell is an evolutionary trait that individuals develop in response to help protect themselves from malaria.
Sickle cell can be diagnosed with a blood test. The only cure available for sickle cell is a bone marrow transplant. This is not a suitable option for everyone and depends on if a suitable donor has been found. A bone marrow transplant involves replacing the bone marrow of the individual with sickle cell with healthy cells from a donor. Medications are available to help reduce the pain associated with this disorder.
Sickle cell is a lifelong condition, and by living a healthy lifestyle, the associated complications can be reduced.