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What is thalassemia?
Thalassemia is the name given to a group of hereditary red blood cell disorders that affect hemoglobin production. Thalassemias are among the most common inherited disorders in the world: the affect more than 300,000 children worldwide, particularly in areas where malaria is common, including the Mediterranean and Middle East regions, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.  
Causes and types
Hemoglobin is a very important component in red blood cells, as it carries oxygen around the body. Hemoglobin is comprised of four sub-units: two alpha-globin sub-units (alpha1 and alpha2) and two beta-globin sub-units (beta1 and beta2). These components are created by specific genes that are passed onto the child from each parent. Sometimes genes can become mutated or deleted and therefore do not allow the regular production of hemoglobin. This leads to red blood cells that are poorly formed, with a shortened life span, anemia and a lack of oxygen transported to all parts of the body.
Thalassemia is a hereditary condition caused by gene mutations or deletions that are passed on from your mother or father, or both. An estimated 5% of the world's population carries one of these mutations. [3 ] Depending on the number and type of mutated genes or deleted genes, varying types of thalassemia are caused.
Alpha thalassemia involves the deletion of between one and four of the genes required to make alpha-globin.
Alpha thalassemia carrier
Of the four possible genes used for making alpha-globin, a person has either one or two deleted genes, but is healthy. These people are called 'carriers' and they have a risk of giving birth to a child affected with either hemoglobin H disease or Bart's hydrops fetalis (see below) if their partner is also a carrier.
Hemoglobin H disease
Of the four possible genes used for making alpha-globin, individuals have three deleted genes and require regular medical care. This can include mild to moderate anemia that requires lifelong treatment with intermittent blood transfusion.
Bart's hydrops fetalis
None of the four genes needed to make alpha-globin are present. This means that hemoglobin cannot be formed and oxygen cannot be transported around the body. This often results in death before birth.
Beta thalassemia involves the mutation of one or two of the genes needed to make beta-globin. There are two forms of beta thalassemia.
Beta thalassemia minor
People with beta thalassemia minor have a mutation in one gene used for making beta-globin. These individuals are healthy and are called carriers. If you have Beta thalassemia minor and your partner is also a carrier, there is a risk of having a child affected beta thalassemia major. There is a risk of having a child affected with beta thalassemia major if their partner is also a carrier.
Beta thalassemia major
Individuals with beta thalassemia major have mutations in both genes used for making beta-globin. This results in severe anemia that requires lifelong treatment.
As thalassemia is an inherited condition, risk factors are associated with family history. If both parents have the condition or are carriers of the condition, there is an increased risk of giving birth to a child with the condition. Ethnicity can also be a risk factor: Alpha thalassemia is more common among people of Asian descent, while beta thalassemia is more common among people from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
Signs and symptoms
Signs and symptoms associated with thalassemia can include:
Methods for diagnosis
Thalassemia is diagnosed by several tests involving the components of your blood.
Full blood examination
This is a simple blood test that examines the red blood cells and other components of blood. Thalassemia may be suspected if there are specific changes in the number, size, shape and color of red blood cells.
This test measures the amounts of different forms of hemoglobin in blood. This test can be used to detect most carriers.
This test can identify which mutations or deletions of hemoglobin genes a person has. This can also be used to detect or confirm carriers.
Types of treatment
The treatment of thalassemia depends on the type and severity of the condition. No treatment is required for carriers of alpha thalassemia or beta thalassemia minor. Hemoglobin H disease and beta thalassemia major are treated with regular blood transfusions. This is done to boost the levels of red blood cells and, most importantly, hemoglobin. Over time, the red blood cells 'wear out' and a new blood transfusion is required. This is an ongoing condition and transfusions will be required for life.
In some cases, bone marrow transplants are also possible and can sometimes result in cure. If successful, the new bone marrow can produce normal blood cells with normal hemoglobin. However, there are significant risks with this procedure, including the possibility of death. Because people with thalassemia can lead normal lives with intermittent blood transfusions, bone marrow transplant may not be considered.
Complications associated with thalassemia can include passing on the condition to a child, if both parents have the condition or are carriers of the condition.
For people requiring regular blood transfusions, there is a side effect of increased iron accumulating in the body. Over time this becomes stored in the liver, heart and pancreas and can lead to liver cirrhosis, heart failure and diabetes. Excess iron can be removed using medications, such as desferrioxamine, in a process called iron chelation.
Thalassemia can cause bone deformities. This occurs because thalassemia causes an expansion of bone marrow, leading to a widening of bones. This can make bones brittle and can cause facial bone structure deformities and slow growth rates in children.
Thalassemia can also cause your spleen to enlarge (splenomegaly). This occurs because your spleen must work harder to filter and remove damaged blood cells. Sometimes the spleen can become too large and must be removed.
Depending on the type of thalassemia, dealing with the condition can be difficult. If you are a carrier, no treatment is required, but there is a risk of having a child with thalassemia if your partner is also a carrier. If you have a more severe form of thalassemia, regular blood transfusions will be required for life. A good network of family and friends can support you with this condition.
If you are planning on having a baby, screening is possible to identify if you or your partner are carriers of thalassemia. Screening is particularly important if there is a family history of the condition. This can identify if there is a chance that you will have a child with thalassemia.
- Weatherall, D.J. (2012). The definition and epidemiology of non-transfusion-dependent thalassemia. Blood Reviews 26 Suppl 1: S3–6.
- Cao, A. & Kan, Y.W. (2013). The Prevention of Thalassemia. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine 3. Accessed from link here
- Martin, A. & Thompson, A.A. (2013). Thalassemias. Pediatric Clinics of North America 60: 1383–1391.
- Blood Donation and Transfusion. Accessed July 31 2014. link here
- Pathophysiology of Alpha Thalassemia. Accessed July 31 2014. link here
- Pathophysiology of Beta Thalassemia. Accessed July 31 2014. link here
- Thalassaemia. Better Health Channel. Accessed July 31 2014. link here
- Thalassaemia Australia Donate Blood. Accessed July 31 2014. link here
FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is thalassemia?
Thalassemia is the name given to a group of hereditary red blood cell disorders that involve hemoglobin production. People with thalassemia have red blood cells that are poorly formed with a shortened life span. This requires people with the condition to have regular …
What are the symptoms of thalassemia?
Signs and symptoms of thalassemia can include weakness, fatigue, jaundice (yellow coloring of skin), enlargement of organs, slow growth, failure to thrive, dark urine, abdominal swelling, and deformities of facial bones.
What causes thalassemia?
Thalassemia is a hereditary condition caused by gene mutations passed on from one or both of your parents.
Who gets thalassemia?
Thalassemia can affect both men and women. It is a hereditary condition that is passed down from one or both of your parents. Ethnicity can also be a risk factor: Alpha thalassemia is more common among people of Asian descent, while beta thalassemia is more common …
How is thalassemia diagnosed?
Thalassemia is diagnosed by blood tests. A full blood examination can be performed to check the levels of different components of blood. Hemoglobin electrophoresis is a test that measures the amounts of different forms of hemoglobin in blood. DNA analysis can …
Are there different types of thalassemia?
Depending on the number and type of mutated genes or deleted genes, varying types of thalassemia are caused. Either alpha globin or beta globin - the components required to make hemoglobin - can be affected. There are multiple forms of each …
How is thalassemia treated?
The treatment of thalassemia depends on the type and severity of the condition. No treatment is required for carriers of alpha thalassemia or beta thalassemia minor. Hemoglobin H disease and beta thalassemia major are treated with regular blood transfusions. …
Can thalassemia be cured?
Dealing with thalassemia can often be difficult. If you are a carrier, no treatment is required, but there is a risk of having a child with thalassemia if your partner is also a carrier. If you have a more severe form of thalassemia, regular blood transfusions …