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HomeMedical Information Coping With a DiseaseAnaemia: the invisible disorder that can become a silent killer

Anaemia: the invisible disorder that can become a silent killer

By: Medix Team
Anaemia: the invisible disorder that can become a silent killer

The World Health Organization wants to halve levels by 2025.

Have you been struck by a strange desire to suck on some ice, or chew a piece of paper any time recently? If you have, you could be suffering from anaemia, the world’s most common blood disorder, affecting just over 1.5 billion people worldwide.

 

No one is quite sure why sufferers develop cravings for items with no nutritional value, but they do know that it’s linked to low iron levels. This, in turn, is the leading cause of the most common form of anaemia, which comes from the ancient Greek word ‘anaemia,’ or ‘lack of blood’. Sufferers either have too few red blood cells, or the ones they do have cannot transport oxygen efficiently enough around the body.

 

Iron plays a key role because the bone marrow needs it to create haemoglobin, a protein that gives blood cells their red colour and carries oxygen from the lungs to other tissues and organs. These cells typically circulate for about 115 to 120 days before the spleen and liver degrade them.

 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to a third of the world’s population suffers from some form of anaemia, particularly children and menstruating women. It’s especially widespread in Asia according to the most recent WHO figures. About half of young Indian women have it, followed by 32% in Thailand, 29% Indonesia, 26% China and 25% in Vietnam.

 

The issue is that many don’t realise they have a problem because the symptoms can come on gradually and are often quite vague. They include feeling tired and dizzy, experiencing a fast heartbeat, or looking pale and jaundiced.

 

Anaemia is a symptom of many illnesses, but left untreated it can kill on its own. In Asia, it’s a known risk factor in maternal mortality, particularly in developing countries.

 

Yet it is also fairly easy to diagnose through a complete blood count. This measures haemoglobin levels, plus the size, number and structure of red blood cells. A low haemoglobin count is less than 13.5 grams per decilitre for men and 12 for women.

 

Treatment depends on the cause, since there are a number of different sub-types. Here are some of the main ones:

 

1. Iron deficiency anaemia

 

This accounts for 50% of all cases, but is one of the easiest types to treat either through iron supplements, or eating high nutritional sources such as: red meat, leafy or cruciferous green vegetables, chocolate with a high cacao content and nuts and seeds. There can be many causes including: poor diet, bleeding (heavy periods, cancers, haemorrhoids, ulcers, surgery etc), bacterial infections and celiac disease (caused by a gluten allergy). But it’s also very important to get advice from a doctor first since excess iron is toxic and can build up, causing organ damage. 

 

2. Vitamin deficiency anaemia

 

Another common form is pernicious anaemia when the immune system attacks healthy stomach cells preventing uptake of vitamin B12, or genetic mutations affect folate (vitamin B9) absorption. Deficiencies cause abnormally large red blood cells that impede haemoglobin transportation. Symptoms include irritability, tingling hands and feet, plus diarrhoea. It can be cured through dietary changes, plus methylated folate in the case of genetic deficiencies.

 

3. Haemolytic anaemia

 

Red blood cells die off more quickly than the body can produce them with this type. It can develop later in life, but is often genetic. The two most common sub-types are sickle cell anaemia (abnormal-shaped red blood cells) and thalassemia (red blood cells that don’t mature properly). They’re particularly common across Asia in countries where malaria is, or has been, endemic. Just over a decade ago, scientists finally figured out why: higher levels of red blood cells plus lower levels of haemoglobin per cell protect sufferers against malaria because the parasite destroys a smaller percentage of blood cells overall.

 

4. Aplastic anaemia

 

This is a rare but life-threatening condition when the body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells. There are multiple causes including autoimmune diseases, exposure to toxic materials such as lead and certain medicines for epilepsy and arthritis. More severe forms can require blood transfusions.  

 

5. Inflammation-related anaemia

 

Chronic illnesses that cause inflammation also impede the body’s production of red blood cells. The list includes: cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis. It all adds up to the second most common form of anaemia. It’s treated with iron supplements, or in severe cases with injections of genetically engineered erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone produced by the kidneys that helps to make red blood cells. 

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