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Can you tell it’s sickle cell? Know the signs to save lives

Posted on: 23 August 2022

Sickle cell disease is a debilitating illness that affects thousands of people across the UK but not enough people, including healthcare professionals, know about it or how to spot signs and symptoms. 

People with sickle cell disease produce unusually shaped red blood cells that can cause excruciating pain and other problems because they do not live as long as healthy blood cells and can block blood vessels. 

“Can you tell it’s sickle cell?” is an NHS campaign that aims to raise awareness of the key signs and symptoms of sickle cell disease – which disproportionately affects people from Black African and Caribbean backgrounds. The campaign is targeting healthcare professionals and other emergency care staff, as well as carers of those who live with or look after people who have sickle cell disease. 

A key element of the campaign is a new NHS training programme that will support healthcare staff to better understand the condition, crises, and how to care for patients during their greatest hour of need.

People with the disorder endure severe pain during a ‘sickle cell crisis’ that can occur multiple times per year.

If you are a carer or living with the condition, do you know the symptoms of a Sickle Cell crisis? 

Symptoms of a crisis include – but are not limited to:

  • Pain 
  • Signs of infection including fever 
  • One-sided paralysis or weakness in the face, arms or legs 
  • Confusion 
  • Difficulty walking or talking 
  • Sudden visual changes 
  • Unexplained numbness 
  • Severe headache 
  • Breathlessness, chest pain or low oxygen levels 

Acting quickly can save lives. Treatment, often requiring hospital admission, includes intravenous fluids, oxygen and strong painkillers such as morphine to control the pain to prevent organ failure which can be fatal.

Sickle cell patients and campaigners welcome the campaign as more awareness about the disease is crucial. 

NHS England director of health inequalities Dr Bola Owolabi said:“We know that sickle cell disease is a debilitating illness that thousands of people live with, but has historically been poorly understood, which is why the NHS is launching this new campaign and asking: ‘can you tell it’s sickle cell?’

“It is vital that we continue to tackle healthcare inequalities head on and this means improving care and experience of NHS services, access to the latest, cutting-edge treatments, and proactively raising awareness of conditions such as sickle cell disorder that disproportionately affect some of our communities.”

Mary Adeturinmo is a 29-year-old from London who was diagnosed with sickle cell before she was born and has campaigned to raise awareness of the condition for a number of years.

Speaking about the launch of the NHS campaign, she said: “When I suffer a sickle cell crisis, the pain can be in my legs, arms, back, and it’s excruciating – I need immediate help, an ambulance and strong doses of painkillers to get my symptoms under control.

“Too often staff aren’t sure how to help, whether that’s the paramedics or nurses and doctors in A&E, and then the level of understanding ranges around the country and it can be difficult to get the right care. I’m so glad that the NHS is launching this campaign and proactively teaching staff what it means to have sickle cell, what symptoms and signs to look out for and most importantly, how to help”.

*Last year, the NHS gave the green light to roll out the first sickle cell treatment in 20 years, which could help as many as 5,000 people over three years to have a much better quality of life.

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