Frédéric Piel and colleagues combine national sickle cell anemia (SCA) frequencies with projected demographic data to estimate the number of SCA births in children under five globally from 2010 to 2050, and then estimate the number of lives that could be be saved following implementation of specific health interventions starting in 2015.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The global burden of sickle cell anaemia (SCA) is set to rise as a consequence of improved survival in high-prevalence low- and middle-income countries and population migration to higher-income countries. The host of quantitative evidence documenting these changes has not been assembled at the global level. The purpose of this study is to estimate trends in the future number of newborns with SCA and the number of lives that could be saved in under-five children with SCA by the implementation of different levels of health interventions.
Methods and Findings
First, we calculated projected numbers of newborns with SCA for each 5-y interval between 2010 and 2050 by combining estimates of national SCA frequencies with projected demographic data. We then accounted for under-five mortality (U5m) projections and tested different levels of excess mortality for children with SCA, reflecting the benefits of implementing specific health interventions for under-five patients in 2015, to assess the number of lives that could be saved with appropriate health care services. The estimated number of newborns with SCA globally will increase from 305,800 (confidence interval [CI]: 238,400–398,800) in 2010 to 404,200 (CI: 242,500–657,600) in 2050. It is likely that Nigeria (2010: 91,000 newborns with SCA [CI: 77,900–106,100]; 2050: 140,800 [CI: 95,500–200,600]) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2010: 39,700 [CI: 32,600–48,800]; 2050: 44,700 [CI: 27,100–70,500]) will remain the countries most in need of policies for the prevention and management of SCA. We predict a decrease in the annual number of newborns with SCA in India (2010: 44,400 [CI: 33,700–59,100]; 2050: 33,900 [CI: 15,900–64,700]). The implementation of basic health interventions (e.g., prenatal diagnosis, penicillin prophylaxis, and vaccination) for SCA in 2015, leading to significant reductions in excess mortality among under-five children with SCA, could, by 2050, prolong the lives of 5,302,900 [CI: 3,174,800–6,699,100] newborns with SCA. Similarly, large-scale universal screening could save the lives of up to 9,806,000 (CI: 6,745,800–14,232,700) newborns with SCA globally, 85% (CI: 81%–88%) of whom will be born in sub-Saharan Africa. The study findings are limited by the uncertainty in the estimates and the assumptions around mortality reductions associated with interventions.
Our quantitative approach confirms that the global burden of SCA is increasing, and highlights the need to develop specific national policies for appropriate public health planning, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Further empirical collaborative epidemiological studies are vital to assess current and future health care needs, especially in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and India.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
More than seven million babies are born each year with a structural or functional abnormality. Although some birth defects are caused by environmental factors, many are caused by the inheritance of a defective gene. One common inherited birth defect is sickle cell anemia (SCA). SCA arises when a baby inherits the gene for sickle hemoglobin (HbS), a structural variant of normal adult hemoglobin (HbA, the protein in the disc-shaped red blood cells that carry oxygen round the body), from both its parents. Every cell in the human body contains two full sets of genes, and babies inherit one set of genes from each parent. The parents usually each have one HbS gene and one HbA gene, and are unaffected. However, the red blood cells of their offspring who inherit two copies of HbS develop a sickle (crescent) shape. Sickle cells can block blood vessels in the limbs and organs and have a shorter lifespan than normal red blood cells, which causes anemia. Together, these changes can cause acute pain and organ damage, and can increase the risk of severe infections. SCA can be prevented by prenatal diagnosis and managed by interventions such as the provision of antibiotics and vaccination to prevent infections.
Why Was This Study Done?
Without early diagnosis and treatment, children with SCA often die within the first few years of life. Having one copy of the HbS gene provides people with protection from malaria, therefore SCA occurs mainly in low- and middle-income countries in tropical regions, where early diagnosis and treatment is often unavailable. Recent improvements in overall infant and childhood survival in these countries and population migration to higher-income countries mean that the global burden of SCA is likely to increase over the coming decades. To date, no one has tried to quantify this increase, although this information is needed to guide decisions on public health spending. In this modeling study, the researchers assess the size of the expected global burden of SCA between 2010 and 2050 in children under five years old and estimate the number of newborn lives that might be saved by implementation of various health interventions.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used estimates of national SCA frequencies and data on projected birth rates to calculate that the number of newborns with SCA will increase from about 305,800 in 2010 to about 404,200 in 2050. They estimated that Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and India accounted for 57% of newborns with SCA in 2010, and that Nigeria and the DRC will probably still be the countries most in need of policies for the prevention and management of SCA in 2050. The researchers then assessed how many newborns might be saved by the implementation of various health measures in 2015 that affect excess mortality (the difference between the frequency of SCA in newborns and in five-year-olds divided by the frequency of SCA in newborns) among children born with SCA. Implementation of prenatal diagnosis and newborn screening programs, and provision of antibiotics and vaccinations (interventions assumed by the researchers to reduce excess mortality from 90% to 50% in low- and middle-income countries and from 10% to 5% in high-income countries) could prolong the life of more than five million newborns with SCA by 2050. Implementation of universal screening and provision of other specific measures predicted to reduce excess mortality to 5% and 0% in low-to-middle-income countries and high-income countries, respectively, could save nearly ten million lives by 2050.
What Do These Findings Mean?
In estimating the global burden of SCA in children under five years old between 2010 and 2050 and the number of newborn lives that could be saved by implementation of health interventions, the researchers made numerous assumptions reflected in the uncertainty associated with the projections. For example, they assumed that implementation of specific interventions would lead to an immediate reduction of excess mortality in newborns with SCA. The study's findings confirm, however, that the global burden of SCA is increasing and indicate that the implementation of specific interventions could extend the lives of millions of newborns with SCA. Although further studies are needed to assess the current and future health care needs of children with SCA, these findings highlight the need to develop and implement national public health planning and funding policies for SCA, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001484.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Edward Fottrell and David Osrin
The US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides detailed information (including personal stories) about sickle cell anemia (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Choices website also provides detailed information and a personal story about sickle cell anemia
The Sickle Cell Society, a UK-based not-for-profit organization, provides information for patients and carers and includes a children's website
The World Health Organization has a factsheet on sickle cell anemia and other inherited hemoglobin diseases (in several languages)
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources about sickle cell anemia (in English and Spanish)
The Malaria Atlas Project provides epidemiological information on the inherited blood disorders (including sickle cell anemia) that affect our response to malaria infection
The Global Sickle Cell Disease Network is a portal bringing together leading sickle cell disease researchers and clinicians from high-, middle-, and low-income countries to form a network