How common is sickle cell anemia?

Dear Alice,

What percentage of African Americans in the U.S. are diagnosed with sickle cell anemia?

Dear Reader, 

Sickle cell anemia is one of the most common types of sickle cell disease. This inherited condition disproportionately impacts Black and African American communities and often has life-threatening consequences. About 100,000 people in the U.S. alone have sickle cell anemia and it occurs in 1 out of every 365 Black or African American births. Due to its high prevalence in Black communities, around 1 in 13 Black or African American babies are still carriers of the sickle cell trait. Even though they may not have the disease, carriers could still pass down the trait to any future offspring they may have. 

Sickle cell anemia is most prevalent in people whose ancestry can be traced back to sub-Saharan Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Central America, Saudi Arabia, India, and Mediterranean countries. There has also been some research done that suggests that those who have sickle cell anemia may be more protected against malaria. 

Sickle cell anemia is caused by inheriting a defective hemoglobin gene from both parents. Hemoglobin is the part of red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen in the bloodstream throughout the body. Defective hemoglobin produced by the sickle gene becomes stiff, causing the red blood cells to change from a rounded, doughnut-shaped cell that can flow easily through small blood vessels to a pointy crescent or sickle-shaped cell. Sickled cells also have a shorter lifespan of 10 to 20 days compared to typical red blood cells, which die after about 120 days. Because sickle cells die so quickly, the body can’t keep up with the production which can cause symptoms such as chronic pain, swelling in hands and feet, frequent infections, puberty or growth delays in children and teens, vision problems, and anemia which also causes fatigue. Additional complications that can arise from sickle cell anemia can include stroke, organ damage, and pregnancy complications. These symptoms and resulting complications may lead to a shorter life expectancy. 

That said, there are various strategies for managing and treating sickle cell anemia, including: 

  • Allogenic stem cell transplantations, which are used for those with especially severe symptoms and complications, like strokes, acute chest syndrome, or painful crises. In this method, healthy donated stem cells transform into all types of blood cells, attacking and replacing the unhealthy cells in the patient's body. 
  • Blood transfusions, which can be used to treat or prevent complications from sickle cell anemia. These can be acute transfusions, red blood cell transfusions, or regular or ongoing blood transfusions. 
  • Medications, which can be used to reduce pain or symptoms. some can even slow the progression of the disease by preventing blood cells from sickling in the first place or sickling even more. Antibiotics like penicillin can also be used to reduce the frequency of infections. In cases of extreme pain, hospitalization, and IV pain meds may be necessary. Stronger prescriptions such as opioid painkillers for especially painful crises may also be prescribed to patients. 

There’s also ongoing research being done to discover genetic therapy treatments, which would either add new deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or change existing DNA. Hope this helps answer your question. For more information about the condition, consider checking out Sickle Cell Disease Association of America

Last updated Jun 09, 2023
Originally published Feb 08, 2002

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