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As military bases prepare to honor Black History Month, military health providers are using the time to remind families and individuals to get tested for sickle cell disease.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood condition that if left untreated can cause anemia, severe pain, infections, major organ failure and death, according to 18th Medical Command officials on Yongsan Garrison

The disease, also known as sickle cell anemia, is predominant in people of African descent but also is found in people from India, Saudi Arabia, Mediterranean countries and Spanish-speaking regions of the world, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The genetic anomaly came about as a way to protect people from malaria, according to Kenneth Cobb, a health promotion coordinator with the 18th Medical Command.

But the condition also creates abnormal, sickle-shaped red blood cells that tend to clot and die much more rapidly than normal red blood cells. Because red blood cells carry oxygen and iron, the sickle cells slow down this delivery process, causing anemia, painful swelling and performance problems with organs, Cobb said during a phone interview Wednesday.

Sickle cell anemia now affects about 72,000 people in the United States and another 2 million Americans are carriers of the disease, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Among blacks in the United States, 1 in 600 babies has the disease; 1 in every 1,000 to 1,400 Hispanic-American babies also has the disease, according to the institute’s Web site.

But the symptoms sometimes can be subtle — joint aches, fatigue — and without the proper blood test, the disease sometimes can be misdiagnosed, according to 18th Medcom officials.

“There’s a lot of people walking around with sickle cell anemia and they don’t know it,” said Lt. Col. Marie Price, the chief nurse for the command’s force health protection section. “It’s that silent disease. It hasn’t gone away.”

Even if a person does not have the disease, he or she may be a carrier of “sickle cell trait,” Cobb said. To get the disease, a child must inherit the sickle cell gene from both parents. But those parents can carry the disease trait without suffering from the condition, he said.

If both parents have the trait, their child has a 25 percent chance of getting sickle cell anemia, he said.

Go to www.nhlbi.nih.gov/ health/dci/Diseases/Sca/SCA_ WhatIs.html for more information about sickle cell disease.

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