It is imperative to create awareness about thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder. In thalassemia, is not able to sufficiently produce hemoglobin which leads to less red blood cells. This obviously affects the whole functioning of the body. Dr Ian Pinto, Consultant Blood & Cancer Specialist, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre helps us understand the symptoms, treatment options and dietary guidelines for thalassemia.

Symptoms of thalassemia
Patients with thalassemia major have severe anemia (low hemoglobin) and symptoms present normally in the first two years of life. They present with poor appetite, poor growth, tiredness, enlarged abdominal organs (liver, spleen), bone problems (especially with bones in the face), need for blood transfusions and iron overload secondary to all the blood transfusions. Patients with Thalassemia minor may have mild anemia and can be asymptomatic.

Treatment of thalassemia
Patients with thalassemia major will require chronic blood transfusions to overcome the anemia from the breakdown of abnormal thalassemia cells. Red blood cell has a lot of iron and multiple blood transfusions lead to excess iron build up in the body. This iron has to be removed through intravenous or oral drugs as excess iron can lead to multiple organ failure. Allogeneic stem cell transplantation (using another person’s matched bone marrow) is a potentially curative therapy for thalassemia that may be used in patients with severe disease. Several drug therapies and gene therapy for thalassemia are under investigation and appear promising.

Foods to avoid and eat when dealing with thalassemia
Nutritional deficiencies are common in thalassemia. Folate supplementation and a low iron diet are recommended. Avoid iron-fortified foods like cereal and excessive consumption of red meat. Tea and coffee decrease iron absorption from meals and is encouraged. Calcium and Vitamin D supplementation in deficient patients is needed. Zinc supplementation may be recommended only in those with a deficiency.