New cure for Gulf’s thalassemia sufferers

DUBAI: Most of the Gulf’s thalassemia sufferers can now be cured of the debilitating blood disease through a safe and effective bone marrow transplant procedure performed in the United States, said one of the world’s leading pediatric hematologists, ahead of International Thalassemia Day on 8 May. Thalassemia is a genetic blood disease, common across the wider Middle East and South Asia, in which victims are not able to make enough hemoglobin – a necessary component in healthy red blood cells, carrying oxygen to all parts of the body – and, thus, suffer from severe anemia and eventual organ failure, and, ultimately, premature death.

The condition is typically treated with life-long, cost-prohibitive “supportive care”, with most thalassemia sufferers dying before the age of 40. However, the latest advances in bone marrow transplantation significantly reduce both treatment time and cost, giving Gulf thalassemia patients and their families new hope. “With thalassemia, we want to treat the underlying disease, not just the symptoms, and this approach requires bone marrow transplantation,” said Dr Rabi Hanna, pediatric oncologist at US-based Cleveland Clinic. “Now, finding a matching bone marrow donor is much easier, as we only require a haplo-donor ‘half-match’, meaning every patient can find a donor (father, mother or half-sibling), as opposed to only 25%, which has been the case for the last 25 years,” added Dr Hanna.

Bone marrow transplantation is the process by which a compatible donor, typically a matching sibling, has his or her stem cells transplanted into the thalassemia patient’s bloodstream via a tube called a central venous catheter.  The stem cells travel through the blood into the bone marrow, thus enabling the growth of healthy, oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The leading US hospital also believes it can work far more effectively with Gulf-based physicians to reduce the standard one-year treatment timeline for transplantation patients, as well as the associated costs and familial inconveniences associated with patient relocation.  Some patients may only need to spend as few as three months in the United States.

The Dubai Thalassemia Center at the Dubai Health Authority will be one of several healthcare providers in the region to consider the new curative treatment option for its patients. One such patient is 14-year-old Hussain Ahmed Almas, a UAE national who was seen and treated by Dr. Hanna at Cleveland Clinic last year and has benefited from a successful novel reduced intensity “Haplo” bone marrow transplant in November of 2016. “My life is now completely normal, and I expect to live into old age.  I even have high energy levels, enabling me to experience activity for the first time in my life,” said Almas.  “I no longer require regular blood transfusions, and I can attend school without missing classes and other activities.”

Thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder, is a highly prevalent disease in the UAE but can easily be prevented with a simple and inexpensive blood test. Thalassemia carriers are healthy people and can have healthy children, but they should not marry other carriers or they risk producing children born with disease. The Thalassemia International Federation (TIF) has designated 8 May each year as International Thalassemia Day, and UAE sufferers of the disease have come together to remember those victims lost to the disease but also celebrate those who fight the disease each day of their lives.  The 8 May date serves as an annual reminder of the medical advancements made in the fight to cure the deadly disease.

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