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New drug offers hope for sickle cell patients

By Flavia Nassaka

Hydroxyurea is being called a `miracle drug’ at Mulago Hospital

For most days Sharif Kiragga acts like a typical 24 year old.  He’s very ambitious and wants to try out everything to improve himself.  When he finished his Bachelors in Biomedical Laboratory Technology at Makerere University in 2011, he immediately started lecturing at the International Health Science University (IHSU). Recently, he enrolled for a master’s degree in Laboratory Science and Management.  He enjoys swimming, soccer, and archery.  He is on the national archery team.

But Kiragga’s achievements belie one thing; he suffers from debilitating pain that at times renders him barely able to walk. The pain is because he was born with sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder with unpredictable complications that causes the red blood cells which are normally disc shaped to assume an abnormal sickle shape, making it difficult for blood to flow through vessels and deliver oxygen throughout the body.


It is estimated that over 400,000 babies are born with sickle cell disease worldwide with over 200,000 births occurring in the sub-Saharan Africa.

Although his condition has not caused him to fall sick over the years, Kiragga has been getting more serious pains over the last four years, mainly in the legs and arms.

“Last year I had to spend a month in the intensive care unit and three months in the ward. I thought I wouldn’t walk again,” he says.

Kiragga is, in fact lucky to be alive. According to Ministry of Health statistics, of the 1, 600,000 births in Uganda per year, 33,000 babies are suspected to be born with sickle cell disease. Of these, 80% die before the age of five. Part of the problem has been late detection of the disease.

Parents often learn of the disease when children start falling sick often yet some children take long to exhibit symptoms. That is what happened in Kiragga’s case. His parents only learnt he had sickle cells when he was six years old when he started falling sick very often.

Until now, it has been very difficult for sufferers to make it to their 18th birthday.  However, new treatments and early intervention techniques are turning a disease which was once a death sentence, into a manageable chronic illness.   Today, Kiragga is one of the 200 who have been initiated on new treatment being introduced at the Mulago sickle cell clinic.  It uses a drug called hydroxyurea. The drug is already widely used in the U.S, but at Mulago it is still undergoing clinical trials.

Kiragga and his colleagues have to get tested every two weeks to see how they are progressing with the drug. So far the doctors, who include U.S-based physicians, are hopeful that the drug could be a life changer.   It is being called a `miracle’ drug.

“If this drug’s benefits outweigh its side effects once the trial is done, the disease will be more manageable. Sicklers will suffer fewer episodes while some will not get crises at all if they take serious precautions,” says Dr. Deogratias Munube, a Paediatrician at the sickle cell clinic at Mulago National Referral Hospital. He says the drug makes the red blood cells look bigger, healthier, and less prone to blocking blood flow.  In the western world it has been found to cut the number of complications from sickle cell disease to half.

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