By: Mel Hendrickson, BSN, RN, Director of Health Services, Penfield Children’s Center Children

Sickle cell anemia is a condition that causes red blood cells to become shaped like crescent moons or sickles and have a sticky, rigid texture, in comparison to healthy red blood cells that are round and flexible. These sickle-shaped blood cells can block blood flow and oxygen to different parts of the body because they become stuck in blood vessels.

How does a baby get sickle cell anemia?

Sickle cell is an inherited condition, which means it is passed down from generation to generation. In order for a child to become affected with sickle cell, both the mother and father must pass the gene to their child. If just one parent has the sickle cell trait, it can be passed to the child, but the blood would be comprised of normal cells and some sickle cells. Most often, a child would not have symptoms of sickle cell if only one parent has the trait because enough healthy red blood cells are being produced. The highest rates of sickle cell anemia are found in children of African American, Hispanic and Caribbean descent.

How can I prevent my child from developing sickle cell anemia?

It’s important to consult with a genetic counselor to understand your child’s risk of developing sickle cell anemia as he/she can discuss preventive and treatment options if one or both parents are carriers.

How is a baby tested for the condition?

Most states require newborns to receive a state screen to determine if he/she has sickle cell. This blood test checks for hemoglobin S, the defective type of hemoglobin that causes the disease. The blood test is performed on newborns by taking a sample from the heel. Sickle cell can also be diagnosed before a baby is born by taking a sample of the amniotic fluid from the mother’s womb.

What are the complications associated with sickle cell anemia?

While the severity of sickle cell anemia is different in every child, it is common for those affected to experience pain and chronic anemia. Other complications can include:

  • Stroke
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Organ damage
  • Blindness
  • Leg ulcers
  • Gallstones

Is there a cure for sickle cell anemia?

The only known cure for this condition is a bone marrow transplant and if a donor is found, this procedure is usually only performed on children younger than 16 years old. It can also be a risky procedure, so most often, sickle cell is managed through regular doctor visits to manage symptoms. Your child’s doctor might prescribe pain medication to manage symptoms and blood transfusions.

If you find out that your child has sickle cell anemia, it can be helpful to form a circle of support around your family. Local support groups comprised of other families who are affected by sickle cell and caring family and friends can make a big difference in helping you and your child cope with the disease.

Do you know a child with sickle cell anemia? How have you helped support that family?


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