It’s Valentine’s! Do You know Your Type?
Valentine’s Day is upon us! Did you know that Saint Valentine’s Day is named after a saint called Valentinus who it is said was imprisoned for performing weddings on soldiers forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians who were persecuted under the Roman Empire? Legend has it that he healed the daughter of his jailer and before his execution he wrote “from your Valentine” as a farewell to her! By the 15th Century, 14 February had become associated with romance and the tradition of courtly love and had pretty much evolved to what happens now –an occasion when lovers (current or would-be!) express their love by presenting each other with flowers, chocolates, romantic gestures and cards known as ‘valentines’.
Why Care about Type?
From the type of people we might be attracted to this Valentine’s Day to the way we look and behave there’s a lot we inherit from our parents through genes, including our haemoglobin genotype. This tells you the two genes (i.e. codes) -one inherited from each parent- that determine your type of blood haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is the substance in your blood that gives blood its red colour and carries oxygen around your body. The type of haemoglobin genes you inherit or pass on can play an important role in determining whether you or your children are affected by two serious inherited blood conditions – sickle cell disease and thalassaemia.
Sickle cell disease is a serious inherited blood condition that can cause severe pain, anaemia and organ damage. It affects people who originate from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. However it is not a ‘Black’ disease and can affect ‘White’ people too, though less frequently. Out of the 15million people estimated to have sickle cell worldwide, around 10 million live in Africa of which approximately 4 million are in Nigeria. In the UK an estimated 15,000 people have sickle cell disease and each year around 270 new babies are born with the condition.
Thalassaemia is a condition most common among people originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cyprus and China. People can inherit Beta Thalassaemia major which affects their ability to produce enough red blood cells. This causes severe anaemia and organ damage and they need to be on regular blood transfusions throughout life.
The usual and most common type of haemoglobin gene people inherit is Haemoglobin A. Unusual haemoglobin genes include Haemoglobin S (known as ‘sickle haemoglobin’), Haemoglobin C and beta thalassaemia. People can only get sickle cell or thalassaemia if they inherit two unusual genes for haemoglobin. People who inherit only one unusual gene are known as ‘carriers’ or ‘trait’. In the UK 1 in 4 West Africans are sickle ‘carriers’ or ‘trait’.
This Valentine’s be the perfect partner!
For Valentine’s many people will establish new relationships or progress old ones and it is timely to raise awareness of these two inherited blood conditions so individuals can consider finding out their haemoglobin genotype, as each time two ‘carriers’ have a baby there is a 25% chance the baby could be born with sickle cell disease or thalassaemia. A simple blood test will determine if you carry a gene for sickle cell or thalassaemia. In the UK the NHS Sickle Cell and Thalassaema Screening Programme offers all pregnant women this blood test which is then offered to the father-to-be if the woman is found to be a carrier. Roughly only 60% of these men are currently accepting their invitation for testing!
You can also ask your GP for this blood test at anytime in your life especially before you and your partner decide to start a family. You both can then discuss any risks and the choices that are right for you. If you are already in a couple and you know that you both carry one of the genes for sickle cell or thalassaemia then you should present to your GP early in your pregnancy or contact maternity services or your nearest NHS Sickle Cell and Thalassaemia specialist counselling services directly. You should also tell healthcare professionals if you want counselling and prenatal diagnosis (tests to see if the unborn baby is affected) and not assume that all healthcare professionals will know what you want!
After the valentine cards, chocolates and flowers are over why not learn more about sickle cell and thalassaemia so you can make informed choices (about testing) if and when the need arises? By so doing, you just might be considered that perfect partner after all!
This article was written by Iyamide Thomas, NHS Engagement Lead, Sickle Cell Society UK (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was originally published in African Voice. You can find more articles like this at www.africanvoiceonline.co.uk
Below are useful websites with lots of resources to help give you more information: