District launching sickle cell testing campaign

ALBANY, Ga. -- When it comes to building a family, the advice people tend to hear the most is to be sure to think long-term.

Officials with the Southwest Public Health District are currently pushing through education efforts in regards to prenatal genetic testing for sickle cell disease.

Since September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, health officials picked this time to promote the message.

"More than 70,000 people in the United States have sickle cell disease, and approximately 2.5 million people carry the gene that allows them to pass it on to their children," said District Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant in a news release.

"Testing can be done prior to conception, which is ideal for those in high-risk groups. It should be done prenatally for those at risk who do not already know their carrier status."

There are different types of sickle cell genes, depending on the genetic material a child inherits from their parents. Thus, people tend to experience the illness in different ways.

"It's a varying disease," said Daneta Kegler, coordinator of the district's Children's Medical Services. "Not all people have the same type. Symptoms are going to be varying (in people that have the condition)."

People who inherit two sickle cell genes, one from each parent, have a type of sickle cell disease called "SS." Also known as sickle cell anemia, it is generally the most severe form of the disease.

People with the condition have red blood cells that are C-shaped. The misshapen cells can get stuck inside blood vessels, blocking the flow of oxygen resulting in tissue destruction, organ damage and death. The sickle cells are more likely to be destroyed as they circulate through the body than round ones.

With fewer red blood cells to carry oxygen to tissues, anemia results -- which can be life-threatening. Patients can experience acute painful episodes accompanied by low-grade fevers, which may occur spontaneously or as a result of infection or dehydration.

"Sickle cell can be a very debilitating disease," said Kegler.

Other complications may include destruction of bone and spleen. The loss of a functioning spleen makes sickle cell patients more susceptible to meningococcal and pneumococcal infections.

There are certain races that are at risk, including those of African, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Indian decent.

One in 12 African-Americans have the sickle cell trait.

"It's predominately in African-Americans, but there is more prevalence of it in other populations because of mixed relationships," said Kegler.

"It's everywhere in the United States."

Having two parents that are carriers gives a child a 25 percent chance of having the disease. The condition is usually diagnosed at birth via the Georgia Newborn Screening Program, which has helped identify at-risk populations.

"We reach out to those people for more bloodwork (or whatever they need)," Kegler said.

In the area public health district, there are about 80 people enrolled in the sickle cell services program. On average, around 25 adults and 20 pediatric patients receive services during monthly clinics.

"It's a satellite clinic for patients to be seen by doctors from the Medical College of Georgia," said Kegler. "They are hematologists that come to the area so patients don't have to travel."

There are two clinics held each month, one for adults and one for children. The services offered at the clinics include genetic testing and counseling, bloodwork and assistance with helping them find services.

The nearest clinic with a similar program is in Valdosta, Kegler said.

Public health also partners with the Albany Sickle Cell Foundation to raise community awareness and provide assistance to sickle cell patients and their families, including obtaining medications for patients if needed.