There is fresh hope that couples with sickle cell anaemia can now have children who are free of the debilitating condition. A medical procedure known as Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), which helps couples who have the AS or SS genotypes to have sickle-cell free babies, is available in the country. Children born with sickle cell are widely known in Nigeria as “sicklers”, as they are oftentimes sickly and prone to many painful conditions on account of the sickle shape of their red blood cells.
The medical procedure, which is used in conjunction with In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), was revealed by the world renowned fertility expert, Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, at the 2016 Lecture of the Institute of Genetic Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, Ibadan, Oyo State. He explained that the procedure is a reproductive technology involving the use of IVF to diagnose genetic diseases such as sickle cell anaemia and autism before embryo implantation.
He disclosed that the technology now allows experts to implant a healthy embryo that is not affected by sickle cell into a female recipient, irrespective of her genotype or that of her husband.
Speaking extensively on the scientific procedure, Prof Ashiru revealed that the first successful sickle cell-free baby born using the procedure was delivered in 2013. Also, the Chief Medical Officer of the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Prof. Tope Alonge, affirmed that the technology has given new hope to people living with sickle cell. The birth of children with sickle cell has, over the years, brought much unhappiness to affected couples and crashed a number of marriages.
However, Ashiru cautioned that those who would benefit from the procedure must not be too advanced in age or have adverse medical history. The medical procedure, which is said to be useful for couples with other genetic diseases, who desire healthy offspring, costs about N3 million.
Despite the immense benefits of this procedure, the fertility expert advised that it is better for young people to still undergo the necessary medical tests to determine their genotypes before marriage. The first PGD was performed in the early 1990s to help couples prevent the birth of babies with genetic diseases.
According to medical experts, sickle cell disease is a group of disorders which affects haemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to cells throughout the body. People with this disorder have a typical haemoglobin molecules called haemoglobin S, which can distort red blood cells into a sickle, or crescent shape. Available medical statistics show that sickle cell disease affects millions of people worldwide. It is most common among people of African descent and in Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Turkey and Italy; Arabian Peninsula; India; and Spanish-speaking regions in South America, Central America, and parts of the Caribbeans.
It is the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States, affecting 70,000 to 80,000 Americans. The disease is estimated to occur one in 500 African Americans and one in 1000 to 1,400 Hispanic Americans. Locally, it affects one to two per cent of the Nigerian population, which is about 15 million.
We commend Ashiru for appraising Nigerians with this good development in medical science that can bring succour to couples with sickle cell who want healthy babies in the country. It is, indeed, a good step in the effort to find lasting solution to the dreaded genetic disease. We urge Nigerian doctors to communicate the availability of this procedure to a wider audience so that more couples who need it can benefit from it.
The cost of this procedure is, however, too high. Let there be further research to reduce the cost. The government should also do all it can to make the medical procedure available at a lower cost in the country.