World Sickle Cell Day: A View from the Front Line

June 19th is World Sickle Cell Day. Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that causes normally round red blood cells to take on an abnormal sickle shape, resulting in clogged arteries, severe pain, increased risk of stroke and reduced life expectancy. To mark the occasion we asked Nancy M. Rene to write a guest blog for us. Nancy is certainly qualified; she is the grandmother of a child with sickle cell disease, and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a non-profit advocating for those with sickle cell disease and their families.

Nancy ReneOn this World Sickle Cell Day, 2017, we can look back to the trailblazers in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease.  More than 40 years ago, the Black Panther Party established the People’s Free Medical Clinics in several cities across the country. One of the functions of these free clinics: to screen people for sickle cell disease and sickle cell trait. This life-saving screening began  in 1971.

Around that same time, President Richard Nixon allocated $10 million to begin the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act. This included counseling and screening, educational activities, and money for research.

In the early part of the twentieth century, most children with sickle cell died before their fifth birthday. With newborn screening available nationwide, the use of penicillin to prevent common infections, and the finding that hydroxyurea was useful in fighting the disease, life expectancy began to improve.

For much of the twentieth century, people with sickle cell disease felt that they were fighting the fight alone, knowledgeable doctors were scarce and insurance was often denied.

Making progress

As we moved into the twenty-first century, patients and families found they had some powerful allies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) joined the battle.  In 2016 the NIH held its tenth annual international conference on sickle cell disease that featured speakers from all over the world.  Participants were able to learn about best practices in Europe, Africa, India, and South America.

Sickle Cell centers at Howard University, the Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research, and other major universities across the country are pointing the way to the best that medicine has to offer.

Last year, the prestigious American Society of Hematology (ASH) launched an initiative to improve understanding and treatment of sickle cell disease.  Their four-point plan includes education, training, advocacy, and expanding its global reach.

Just last month, May 2017, the FDA looked at Endari, developed by Emmaus Medical in Torrance, California.  It is the first drug specifically developed for sickle cell disease to go through the FDA’s approval process. We should have a decision on whether or not the drug goes to market in July.

The progress that had been made up to the beginning of the twenty-first century was basically about alleviating the symptoms of the disease: the sickling, the organ damage and the pervasive anemia. But a cure was still elusive.

But in 2004, California’s Stem Cell Agency, CIRM, was created and it was as if the gates had opened.

Researchers had a new source of funding to enable  them to work on Sickle Cell Disease and many other chronic debilitating diseases at the cellular level. Scientists like Donald Kohn at UCLA, were able to research gene editing and find ways to use autologous bone marrow transplants to actually cure people with sickle cell. While some children with sickle cell have been cured with traditional bone marrow transplants, these transplants must come from a matched donor, and for most patients, a matched donor is simply not available. CIRM has provided the support needed so that researchers are closing in on the cure. They are able to share strategies with doctors and researchers throughout the world

And finally, support from the federal government came with the passage of the Affordable Care Act and adequate funding for the NIH, CDC, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and FDA.

Going backwards

And yet, here we are, World Sickle Cell Day, 2017.

Will this be a case of one step forward two steps back?

Are we really going back to the time when people with Sickle Cell Disease could not get health insurance because sickle cell is a pre-existing condition, to the time when there was little money and no interest in research or professional training, to a time when patients and their families were fighting this fight alone?

For all of those with chronic disease, it’s as if we are living a very bad dream.

Time to wake up

For me, I want to wake up from that dream.  I want to look forward to a future where patients and families, where Joseph and Tiffany and Marissa and Ken and Marcus and all the others, will no longer have to worry about getting well-informed, professional treatment for their disease.

Where patients will no longer fear going to the Emergency Room

Where doctors and researchers have the funding they need to support them in their work toward the cure,

Where all children, those here in the United States along with those in Africa, India, and South America, will have access to treatments that can free them from pain and organ damage of sickle cell disease.

And where all people with this disease can be cured.

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