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An Early Detection Programme Aims to Curb Sickle Cell Disease

Two-thirds of the world’s sickle cell cases are in Africa, making it the most prevalent genetically acquired disease in the region. In Zambia, 20-25% of the population carry the sickle cell gene and 1-2% of babies are born with the disease. About 50% of affected children will die before they reach five, usually from infection or severe anaemia. Lack of awareness among the general population is one reason Dr Catherine Chunda-Liyoka, the consultant in charge of paediatric haematology at UTH, is overseeing a newborn screening pilot. The programme was introduced to UTH and two hospitals in Ndola, a city in Copperbelt province, in 2021, and involves nurses visiting maternity wards and immunisation clinics to take blood samples from babies. Those identified with sickle cell are immediately put on prophylactic medication, and mothers are taught to look out for warning signs such as a swollen spleen, which can lead to severe anaemia and shock. The five-year programme, funded by American Society of Haemotology in seven African countries including Nigeria – the country with the highest global population of sickle cell sufferers – aims to address the dearth of data on the scale of the disease, and illustrate the cost-effectiveness of early screening.