Early care improves lives of Kenyans with sickle cell

In Kenya, 6,000 children are born with sickle cell disease each year.

In Summary

•The only cure for SCD is transplanting the bone marrow, the soft, fatty tissue inside the centre of the bones where blood cells are made.

•The ministry said if identified early and proper care given, the disease can be reduced into a chronic condition needing life-long care.

A health worker displays a blood bag during a blood donating exercise. People living with sickle cell need frequent blood transfusions.
A health worker displays a blood bag during a blood donating exercise. People living with sickle cell need frequent blood transfusions.
Image: FILE

An increasing number of Kenyans living with sickle cell disease are surviving longer into adulthood, the Ministry of Health says.

The ministry said if identified early and proper care given, the disease can be reduced into a chronic condition needing life-long care.

In Kenya, it is estimated that 6,000 children are born with sickle cell disease each year.

In the absence of routine newborn screening and appropriate treatment,  50 per cent of those born with the condition die undiagnosed before their fifth birthday.

“The disease is common across Kenya with high disease burden pockets in Western, Nyanza and Coastal regions, affecting 18 counties. However, with migration and intermarriage, the condition is being increasingly reported in other regions in the country,” said Health CAS Rashid Aman.

Yesterday, the ministry launched guidelines for the management of the disease, which is expected to help improve quality of life for patients.

“The need for blood and blood product transfusion services is equally fundamental to the management of SCD and my Ministry will ensure better availability of these products,” Aman said.

“Essential care for persons living with SCD include; management of sickle cell crisis, pain, fluids, reproductive health, psychosocial support and community involvement,” he added.

In sickle cell disease, the normal round shape of red blood cells becomes C-shaped and cannot move easily through the blood vessels, sometimes leading to blood clots.

These blood clots can cause extreme pain in the back, chest, hands and feet, the World Health Organization says.

“The disrupted blood flow can also cause damage to bones, muscles and organs. People with sickle cell disease often feel weak, tired and look pale,” WHO adds.

The only cure for SCD is transplanting the bone marrow, the soft, fatty tissue inside the centre of the bones where blood cells are made.

During this procedure, a medic takes healthy cells that form blood from the donor and puts them into someone whose bone marrow is not working properly.

The sickle cell disease management guidelines launched yesterday were developed alongside non-communicable diseases guidelines launched on Tuesday.

The four commonest NCDs in Kenya are cancers, heart diseases, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases.

Dr Gladwell Gathecha from the department of non-communicable diseases said the major risk factors for all NCDs include tobacco use, consumption of unhealthy diets, insufficient physical activity and harmful use of alcohol.

The strategy places emphasis on prevention and control measures, as well as strengthening health systems.

The ministry said this would cost Sh377 billion over five years, but only about Sh20 billion is available.

Dr Zipporah Ali, who chairs the NCD Alliance-Kenya, a local non-profit organisation, challenged the government to provide drugs to treat NCDs for free.

“Most people with NCDs cannot access essential medicines, so a strategy is just one thing. We also need to look at control of food because many cannot afford special diets,” she said.