ABUJA, Nigeria — While less than five percent of people worldwide suffer from sickle cell anemia and other similar diseases, this disease continues to be a major issue in Nigeria. Characterized by misshapen red blood cells that can sometimes result in painful blood clots, sickle cell anemia is one of several genetic hemoglobin disorders to afflict a small sect of the global population. For people whose origins can be traced to the African diaspora, the risk is disproportionately higher.
Anemia in Nigeria Statistics
According to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Nigeria, the most populous country in the sub-Saharan region, 24 percent of the population are carriers of the mutant gene and the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia is about 20 per 1,000 births. This means that in Nigeria alone, nearly 150,000 children are born annually with sickle-cell anemia.
The blood clots created by an interlocking of crescent-shaped red blood cells — healthy red blood cells have a round shape — can cause pain in the hands and feet, weakness and fatigue and a yellowing of the eyes. In more serious cases, there is damage to the organs, muscles and bones. For many children under the age of five who have sickle cell anemia, complications caused by infection or blood loss can prove to be fatal.
World Sickle Cell Day was last commemorated on June 19, 2018. Journalist Ebuka Onyeji covered the occasion for Premium Times, an online Nigerian newspaper. Onyeji had the opportunity to speak with National Desk Officer on Sickle Cell at the Ministry of Health, Alayo Sopekan, as well as pathologist Smith Olufemi, about why sickle cell anemia in Nigeria continues to be such a problem.
Limited Funding and Limited Awareness
Sopekan cited a lack of government funding as one of the primary reasons. For example, there had been a policy in place to test every newborn in Nigeria for sickle cell disease, but insufficient federal funding had hampered those efforts. Olufemi agreed that the government must take the lead in addressing sickle cell anemia in Nigeria. “The major issue is that a lot of couples still don’t check their genotype status before marriage,” observed Olufemi. “The awareness is very low. The social welfare of sickle patients is not encouraging. They don’t have access to quality health care which results in complications.”
The suffering caused by sickle cell anemia in Nigeria is not limited strictly to the physical. Sickle cell patients are often stigmatized, reports Onyeji. Chronic sores and ulcers on the legs are not only extremely painful but unsightly and isolating. For the more than 40 million Nigerians who carry the sickle cell gene, government resources are proving to fall far short of addressing their needs.
Sickle Cell Foundation Nigeria
The Sickle Cell Foundation Nigeria has created the National Sickle Cell Centre (NSCC) to better meet the needs of sickle cell patients in Nigeria. According to their mission statement, their primary objective is to alleviate the burden of sickle cell disorder on the country and to ensure that all affected persons can live normal pain-free lives. In the U.S., a similar facility founded in 1974 has been able to increase the average life expectancy of a sickle cell patient from 14 years to 53 years.
The NSCC is located in Lagos, with the goal of developing a Sickle Cell Centre in each State of the Federation. With the proper funding, the NSCC will be equipped to achieve all of its goals. The organization looks forward to collaborating with the three levels of the national health care system to significantly lessen the impact of sickle cell anemia in Nigeria.
– Raquel Ramos