Why Sickle Cell is a bigger problem than HIV for Ghana's development

Nobody would contest that to have Sickle Cell Disease is not a good thing. It's a very painful condition that causes organ damage, interrupts education, work and family life, and ultimately shortens the life of sufferer.

However, rarely do people appreciate what a major impact Sickle Cell has on the whole country. Unlike infectious diseases, it does not capture the headlines. Maybe that's because it has been around for so long, so ingrained in culture, part of the landscape. 

There are two key reasons why Sickle Cell is among the biggest health problems in Ghana today. 

1. Cost of Healthcare

With 2% of babies born in Ghana with Sickle Cell, the strain on the healthcare system is enormous. Nobody has counted the financial cost, but we don't need to. Visiting Korle-Bu Polyclinic recently I was astounded that over 20% of patients on admission were suffering from Sickle Cell-related issues.  

There is no day you run a clinic without seeing a patient with a problem related to Sickle Cell Disease. It is a big problem. It’s devastating for parents and families too - psychologically, emotionally and economically; they cannot lead normal lives. But Sickle Cell is compatible with life if you empower sufferers and their families.
— Dr Nortey, Head Physician at Korle-Bu Polyclinic, Accra, Ghana.

2. Emotional and financial cost to parents and families

The World Health Organisation estimates that across equatorial Africa "the majority of children with the most severe form of the disease die before the age of five, usually from an infection or severe anaemia.

The majority of babies born with Sickle Cell Disease do so undetected, hence the high levels of infant mortality. Families who experience the death of a child will of course suffer unimaginable emotional trauma. It is not uncommon for parents to have several children who die young as a result of Sickle Cell Disease, since most Ghanaian parents are not yet aware of the facts, or their own genetic status. 

But for those children who survive, there is an ongoing impact. As WHO says in its overview,  "Recurrent sickle-cell crises interfere with the patient’s life, especially with regard to education, work and psychosocial development."

Presently it is estimated that about 2% of children born every year test positive for sickle cell disease- SCD SS and SC, this translates to 1 in every 50 newborns- a figure that is relatively higher than the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 1.3%.
— Adam Soale, Research Officer, Sickle Cell Foundation of Ghana

From first-hand experience, it is easy to see that both child and parents are severely disadvantaged. This holds the parents back from career and development progress, and impact the lives of healthy siblings; often the cost of healthcare for children impacts their ability to fund other aspects of family life.

Ultimately this renders the entire country at a significant disadvantage. Little research is available to quantify this, but with quantities of affected babies estimated at 15,000 per year, there is no doubt that the impact on Ghana as a whole, is massive.