I was born with sickle cell trait. What that means is I inherited from one parent one gene that gives my body the ability to produce normal red blood cells, called hemoglobin A. From the other parent, I inherited one abnormal red blood cell gene called hemoglobin S. Because of hemoglobin A, hemoglobin S is held in check, and I lead a normal life.
Having sickle cell trait means I am a carrier for sickle cell disease. I read the other day that there are millions of people worldwide who have sickle cell trait. A good percentage of them are African American, like myself. Other ethnicities that are affected by the abnormal hemoglobin S gene are people of Indian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent. About one in 12 babies born to African American families today have sickle cell trait. Hispanics in America are also prone to be carriers of sickle cell trait. The good news about being a sickle cell trait carrier is only a handful of people born with the trait actually have any systems.
That’s the good news. What gets tricky is when two people – a man and woman – with the abnormal hemoglobin S gene or sickle cell trait make babies together. Because they both have hemoglobin S there is a one in four chance that their child will be born with sickle cell anemia. While they are creating life, their hemoglobin genes are paring. Both parents have hemoglobin A and hemoglobin S. For every child they create, there is 25 percent chance that it will have normal hemoglobin, a 50 percent chance it will have sickle cell trait, and a 25 percent chance that it will have sickle cell anemia.
Research shows that hemoglobin S genes mutated thousands of years ago in order to protect the blood from malaria infections where mosquito infestations were common. People who had the one hemoglobin S gene were less likely to be become sick with malaria. Malaria survivors passed on the trait to offspring. Throughout the centuries, people with sickle cell trait immigrated to other countries where there were fewer risks of mosquito infestations. However, the hemoglobin S gene never returned to an un-mutated state.
Tips for individuals who may have sickle cell trait:
Hispanics, African Americans, as well as ethnics from India , the Mediterranean and the Middle East should get blood screenings as soon as possible to find out if they are carriers for sickle cell anemia. If possible, find out during childhood. Some schools sponsor blood screenings. Doctors and health care centers offer them. In some cases, the tests are free based on income needs.
After a blood screening has determined that an individual is a carrier, they should be conscientious about whom they may potentially have children with. Here’s another argument for abstinence. At least make the person you might be making a baby with aware of the risks, especially if they have sickle cell trait, too. One couple who are both carriers have three healthy sons, while another couple who are carriers have three children with sickle cell anemia.
Remember that there’s a 25 percent chance that your child will have sickle cell anemia, which if diagnosed early can be treated with medication. Adults with sickle cell anemia have an approximate life expectancy of a little over 50 years. There are many symptoms of sickle cell anemia, including stroke and organ failure. Treatment can be expensive.
As for me, I married a man who had sickle cell trait, like myself. We had three sons together. Not one of them has sickle cell anemia. They are grown now. Two of them have sickle cell trait. Which means they should be informed about the fact that they are carriers, what that means for the potential mother of their children, and their children.
The Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders . Ed. Brigham Narins. Vol. 2. 2nd ed. Detroit : Gale, 2005. p1181-1188.