Thalassemia is a form of inherited autosomal recessive blood disorder characterized by abnormal formation of hemoglobin. The abnormal hemoglobin formed results in improper oxygen transport and destruction of red blood cells. Thalassemia is caused by variant or missing genes that affect how the body makes hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. People with thalassemia make less hemoglobin and have fewer circulating red blood cells than normal, which results in mild to severe microcytic anemia. Thalassemia can cause complications, including iron overload, bone deformities, and cardiovascular illness. However, this same inherited disease of red blood cells may confer a degree of protection against malaria (specifically, malaria caused by the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum), which is or was prevalent in the regions where the trait is common. This selective survival advantage of carriers (known as heterozygous advantage) may be responsible for perpetuating the mutation in populations. In that respect, the various thalassemias resemble another genetic disorder affecting hemoglobin, sickle-cell disease. Thalassemia resulted in 25,000 deaths in 2013 down from 36,000 deaths in 1990.
Signs and Symptoms:
- Iron overload: People with thalassemia can get an overload of iron in their bodies, either from the disease itself or from frequent blood transfusions. Too much iron can result in damage to the heart, liver, and endocrine system, which includes glands that produce hormones that regulate processes throughout the body. The damage is characterized by excessive deposits of iron. Without adequate iron chelation therapy, almost all patients with beta-thalassemia accumulate potentially fatal iron levels.
- Infection: People with thalassemia have an increased risk of infection. This is especially true if the spleen has been removed.
- Bone deformities: Thalassemia can make the bone marrow expand, which causes bones to widen. This can result in abnormal bone structure, especially in the face and skull. Bone marrow expansion also makes bones thin and brittle, increasing the risk of broken bones.
- Enlarged spleen: The spleen aids in fighting infection and filters unwanted material, such as old or damaged blood cells. Thalassemia is often accompanied by the destruction of a large number of red blood cells and the task of removing these cells causes the spleen to enlarge. Splenomegaly can make anemia worse, and it can reduce the life of transfused red blood cells. Severe enlargement of the spleen may necessitate its removal.
- Slowed growth rates: Anemia can cause a child’s growth to slow. Puberty also may be delayed in children with thalassemia.
- Heart problems: Diseases, such as congestive heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms, may be associated with severe thalassemia.