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Government of Jamaica

Illnesses Covered

Sickle Cell Disease

What is sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell disease is an inherited disorder in which red blood cells are abnormally shaped. Normal red blood cells are soft and round and can move through small blood tubes in the body to deliver oxygen. Sickle red blood cells become hard, sticky and shaped like a crescent. They don’t last as long as normal, round red blood cells, which leads to a low blood count (anemia). The sickle cells also get stuck in blood vessels, blocking blood flow. This can cause pain and damage to most organs including the spleen, kidneys and liver.

How do you get sickle cell anemia?

You inherit the abnormal hemoglobin from your parents, who may be carriers with sickle cell trait or parents with sickle cell disease. You cannot catch it. You are born with the sickle cell hemoglobin and it is present for life. If you inherit only one sickle gene, you have sickle cell trait. If you inherit two sickle cell genes you have sickle cell disease. Sickle cell anemia is present at birth, but many infants don’t show signs until after four months of age.

What are the symptoms of sickle cell anemia?

The signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia vary. Some people have mild symptoms, others have very severe symptoms and are often hospitalized for treatment. The most common signs and symptoms are linked to anemia (low blood count) and pain.

  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Painful swelling and coldness of the hands and feet
  • Sudden pain throughout the body, often affecting the bones, lungs, abdomen and joints.

How is sickle cell anemia treated?

Sickle cell anemia has no widely available cure. However there are treatments for the symptoms and complications of the disease. Bone marrow transplants may offer a cure in a small number of cases. Due to improved treatment and care, most children born with sickle cell disease now live into middle age and often well beyond. A critical time is the first few years of life, which is why early diagnosis and treatment are so important. Medicines are available to help manage the pain and immunizations and daily doses of antibiotics can help prevent infection, which was the cause of many deaths in infants and young children.

How do I know if I have sickle cell?

A simple blood test can be done by your doctor, which will tell if you are a carrier of the sickle cell trait or if you have the disease. Newborn babies are routinely tested for the disease and it is also possible for the test to be done during the first few months of pregnancy.

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