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Sickle cell anemia (uh-NEE-mee-uh) is a disease affecting many African-Americans. It causes problems with the red blood cells. Normal red blood cells are round and smooth and move through blood vessels easily. Sickle cells are C-shaped and become hard and sticky. They can get stuck in small blood vessels, blocking blood flow. This can cause pain and organ damage. Sickle cells die quickly, but your body cannot make new red blood cells to replace them fast enough. This leads to anemia. People who have sickle cell anemia need constant treatment to prevent severe pain and serious health problems.
Each year, about 1 in 500 African-Americans is born with sickle cell disease, which runs in families. This means that the gene that causes sickle cell anemia is passed down from parents to children. People who have sickle cell disease got the sickle cell gene from both parents. People who have only one sickle cell gene are said to have the sickle cell "trait." They do not have the disease, but they can pass the gene to their children. About 1 in 12 African-Americans has the sickle cell trait.
If you want to have a baby, you and your partner can get a simple blood test to see if you have the sickle cell trait. If you both have the trait, your child will have a 1 in 4 chance of getting sickle cell anemia. If you both have the trait, talk to your doctor about your options. All 50 states test newborn babies for sickle cell anemia as part of their newborn screening programs.
Content last updated: May 18, 2010.