Alpha Thalassemia

What is Alpha Thalassemia?

Alpha thalassemia occurs when the body does not produce enough hemoglobin and this condition causes individuals to become anemic. Hemoglobin is a protein that is present in red blood cells. It contains iron and it also transports oxygen to the various components of the body.

The anemia can be mild or serious depending on the number of inherited genes that are altered or completely absent. Individuals acquire this medical condition from their parents and it can be inherited from one parent or both parents. There are four different kinds of alpha thalassemia and the symptoms will vary depending on the specific type.

What are the Symptoms of Alpha Thalassemia?

Individuals who have silent alpha thalassemia are only carriers of this condition, so they do not have any symptoms. Those who are diagnosed with alpha thalassemia often do not display any symptoms either, and if they do, they may feel slightly fatigued and they may be unable to participate in physical exercise.

Hemoglobin H disease is a more serious form of this condition and in addition to feeling tired, individuals may have a yellow pallor to their skin. Other symptoms include ulcers on the legs and a liver or spleen that increases in size. Alpha thalassemia major is a fatal form of this condition and death most often occurs while a baby is still in the womb.

Alpha Thalassemia Causes

Four genes control hemoglobin production – alpha thalassemia happens when one of the genes mutates or is abnormal, and the other three are normal. The body makes a reduced amount of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body, at the same time it produces a mutated type of hemoglobin.

This is an inherited blood disorder. If only one of the parents passes on the gene, then the patient will have only a mild case of thalassemia. Thalassemia is characterized by anemia, jaundice, and heart, liver and spleen trouble among other things. There might be no symptoms at all, but the patient will be a carrier. The patient is known as a “silent carrier”; this can be seen in a DNA test. Of course, it is possible that some patients will have minor symptoms.

Those with alpha thalassemia mainly come from Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries like Greece.

How is Alpha Thalassemia Treated?

The treatment methods will vary depending on the seriousness of the symptoms. Physicians often recommend a folic acid supplement to increase red blood cell production or an iron supplement to boost the iron levels in the body. When necessary, individuals may need to have blood transfusions if they become extremely anemic.

Some people will be required to have a splenectomy to remove the spleen if they show signs of hypersplenism. Bone marrow transplants are sometimes performed to treat alpha thalassemia. During this procedure, a person’s bone marrow is obliterated by radiation and then new bone marrow from a donor is put in its place.

Alpha Thalassemia Prevention

Although alpha thalassemia is the mildest of disorders, it is still an inherited blood disorder, hence there is no preventing it. However, there are ways of managing the disorder so that complications aren’t so bad.

Prenatal testing including globin-chain analysis is available for families with the genes, and keeping up with hepatitis vaccines is advised. A healthy low-fat diet is preferable in controlling the disorder. Iron is the enemy here, so avoiding foods rich in iron is a good idea including fish, fortified foods like cereals and breads.

Genetic testing and counseling is also advised. If couples want children, they can be artificially inseminated. The embryo is then tested to determine its carrier status and non-carrying embryos may then be implanted. Couples must be aware that this is a controversial thing to consider, however.