African-American baby (224116)
Credit: Image by Chris Thornton from Pixabay

A newly released study seeks to increase sickle cell disease detection and treatment rates in newborn babies across Nigeria through HemoTypeSC, a rapid diagnostic test. The 10-minute test consists of pricking the bottom of a baby’s foot to collect a microliter of blood. This blood is then tested for monoclonal antibodies to detect hemoglobin A (normal), S (sickle cell disease), and C (carrier of trait).

According to the study, 3,603 children younger than nine months were screened using HemoTypeSC to show the feasibility of adding newborn screening into existing primary health-care immunizations with rapid testing. This reinforces access to patients with sickle cell in poor communities, a shift from developed countries with better nutrition, bigger financial budgets, and infectious disease vaccines having prominent accessibility, according to the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health.

Nigeria reportedly is one of the lead countries in the world with its estimated number of babies born with sickle cell anemia, a common form of sickle cell disease that requires a blood transfusion.

“Sickle cell disease is a problem that shames us as a country. It’s a 100% [sic] preventable disease. Yet, we have the highest prevalence of it. That means that we aren’t really doing much,” said Dr. Obiageli Nnodu, the lead author of the HemoTypeSC study and professor of hematology and blood transfusion, who also treats sickle cell disease patients.

HemoTypeSC is not a cure; it allows detection to enable treatment. However, some parents who participated in the study by giving their child’s consent withdrew from the treatment program.

“Parents are not used to seeing babies identified with sickle cell disease,” said Dr. Nnodu. “And you know that the disease doesn’t start manifesting until the baby’s hemoglobin comes down at 6 months. We’re identifying them at birth and we’re telling the parents that this child has this disease that they know about…and they’re looking at the babies and the babies are fine because it’s not yet at that stage where they become sick. So they say, ‘No, my baby doesn’t have sickle cell disease.’ And the baby really is ok at that point in time.”

Reluctance is also tied to HemoTypeSC’s association with western health organizations. According to Erik Serrao, from Silver Lake Research in Los Angeles, the study gives governments and NGOs––such as WHO and the Gates Foundation––evidence that countrywide newborn screening is not only possible but also affordable at rates less than $2.00 without the requirement of electricity, refrigeration or extensive training.

“This is a program by ourselves to solve an existing health care problem,” said Dr. Nnodu. “Nigeria is contributing 75% of this gene to sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a Gate’s problem. It’s not Gates initiative at all. It’s our initiative.”

Presently HemoTypeSC is widely used in Ghana and Kenya. The hope is that Nigeria’s registration will secure its path of halting preventable deaths at the hands of sick cell disease.