Anemia runs in my family and I was diagnosed as anemic when I was a child, but being anemic and having sickle cell anemia are two completely different ballparks. Sickle cell anemia is a nasty disorder that can be diagnosed at birth and during adulthood. It’s characterized by a reduced red blood cell count and oddly shaped blood cells. This is why the disorder is called “sickle cell,” the cells are rounded and sickle-shaped.

A well-established drug called hydroxyurea is used to treat adults and children with the disorder, but recently it was found to also be more effective in reducing hospitalization in infants and toddlers who have inherited the disorder. A study led by St. Jude’s Hospital has estimated that using hydroxyurea could cut hospital time and medical costs by as much as 21% when it’s used to treat young patients.

Dr. Winfred Wang, a member of the St. Jude Department of Hematology and principal investigator of the multicenter federally funded trial says that they “estimate that hydroxyurea cut overall annual medical expenses about $3,000 for each patient by helping patients avoid disease complications that require inpatient hospital care. We expect those savings will grow along with patients, whose symptoms often increase in severity and frequency as they age."

By catching and treating the disorder early, the costs and hospital visits associated with sickle cell anemia can be reduced successfully, saving patients and their family time and money in the long run. In the U.S. alone, over 100,000 people develop sickle cell anemia and millions more develop is worldwide. It’s usually a genetic disorder that affects the hemoglobin gene and it causes acute pain, strokes, organ failure and many other types of complications.

During the study, it was found that children who used the drug were hospitalized a total of 232 times compared to the placebo group that was hospitalized a total of 324 times. Also, the annual medical costs of the children receiving hydroxyurea during the analysis were estimated to be $11,072, compared to the children in the placebo group who had an estimated $13,962 annual cost.

The drug helps increase the production of fetal hemoglobin, which is a type of oxygen-carrying protein unaltered by the mutations that cause sickle cell anemia. Usually, these specific proteins stop being produced as quickly right after birth, but the drug causes the body to instead produce more red blood cells that carry the specific form of hemoglobin. Hydroxyurea is prescribed to about 30% of pediatric patients around the world, but the new research could cause the drug to become more widely used. There are still concerns about long-term effects, however, but the researchers at St. Jude’s are looking for ways to safely use the drug for long periods of time.

Source: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (2013, September 2). Drug reduces hospitalizations and cost of treating young children with sickle cell anemia. ScienceDaily.

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