World Sickle Cell Day Raises Awareness

Sickle cell anemia requires lifetime management but can include fulfilling life

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Created by a United Nations resolution in 2008, World Sickle Cell Day was created to increase awareness of the genetic disease called sickle cell anemia.

With sickle cell disease, a person's red blood cells form a crescent shape like a sliver of a moon instead of a round full moon shape.

It occurs in people who inherit the trait from both their parents, and it predominantly affects African-American men. World Sickle Cell day is therefore focused especially on countries in Africa and Asia, but over 80,000 people in the US have sickle cell disease as well.

"Sickle cell disease can be managed - ask your doctor."

The cause of the sickle-shaped cells is an abnormal form of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen throughout the body inside the red blood cells. Those with sickle cell have a form called hemoglobin S.

With a narrower shape than normal, the red blood cells cannot carry as much oxygen throughout the body and are more fragile, sometimes getting stuck in blood vessels or breaking apart.

The person with sickle cell disease therefore does not have enough oxygen being carried throughout the body and can experience fatigue, a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath and a yellowing of the eyes and skin.

A sickle cell episode can cause a patient to appear pale and experience confusion, ulcers on the legs, poor eyesight or a painful and prolonged erection. They may require frequent blood transfusions and eventually their spleen may fail, which can cause infections in the bones, gallbladder, lungs or urinary tract.

There is no cure for the disease, so it simply needs to be managed through blood transfusions, pain medications and drinking plenty of fluids, as well as taking folic acid supplements to continuously build new red blood cells.

Because of the physical and psychological pain and stress of the disease, those with sickle cell anemia are encouraged to join support groups, and their family members can join support groups for caregivers.

Although sickle cell patients once had far shorter life spans - living only until their 30s and 40s, most patients now live well into their 50s and beyond because of improved understanding of the disease and better management of it.

The disease is sometimes inappropriately stigmatized, and one of the goals of World Sickle Cell Day is to educate people about the public health concerns surrounding the disease and end the prejudices associated with it.

Another aim of the awareness day is to promote "satisfactory access to medical services to people affected with sickle cell disease," according to the UN's resolution, as well as promoting research to improve the lives of people living with the disease.

Like any chronic illness, living with sickle cell disease presented challenges and can be painful and stressful. However, managing the disease with regular treatment and communication with your doctor, as well as receiving mental health support, can help those with the condition live long, full lives.

Many people with the disease have led fulfilling lives, including jazz musician Miles Davis, rapper Prodigy, actor Larenz Tate, football player Tiki Barber and singer "T-Boz" of the group TLC.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 19, 2012
Last Updated:
October 25, 2012