College Health for Black History Month – Sickle Cell

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In recognition of Black History Month, Student Health Services will be dedicating some of our February blog posts to conditions that disproportionately affect people of African descent.

One of the most well known diseases to affect primarily African Americans is sickle cell anemia, an autosomal recessive condition that occurs when a person inherits two copies of the sickle cell gene from their parents.  Unfortunately, people with sickle cell anemia are usually made painfully aware of this condition in childhood.

Sickle cell anemia occurs in roughly 1 in 500 African Americans but sickle cell trait, in which a person inherits just one copy of the sickle cell gene, occurs in about 1 in 12 African Americans! People with sickle cell trait only have painful sickle cell symptoms under extreme conditions such as:

  • At high altitues (ie. flying, mountain climbing)
  • In low oxygen environments (mountain climbing, military or sports training)
  • Dehydration (especially during sports training)

Because several college football players died during training from complications of this condition,  the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recommends that college athletes be tested for sickle cell trait.  While it disproportionately affects people of African descent, it can also occur in people of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Indian, Caribbean and Central/South American descent (and even rarely Caucasians). People born after 1993 were likely screened at birth for this gene, so if you are a person of African descent born before 1993 and are considering playing college sports, please be sure to discuss testing with your health care provider!

On a somewhat positive note, students suffering from sickle cell anemia may be eligible for special college scholarships, click here for more information.

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University