Carrying sickle cell trait may make you vulnerable to COVID-19, UTHealth research shows

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Sickle cell could cause COVID-19 vulnerability, research shows
WATCH: Hear from a physician at UTHealth about what they're trying to find in their sickle cell and coronavirus research.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, and new research being done at UTHealth is shedding light on the very serious risks related to the disease and COVID-19.

A research team at UTHealth is trying to determine whether the several million people who merely carry one copy of the sickle cell mutation but do not have the disease itself could be more vulnerable to COVID-19. They are also trying to determine if that might be one reason the virus is disproportionately infecting and killing Black Americans.

Naomi Wesson was born with sickle cell disease and was diagnosed at 4 years old. Doctors predicted she wouldn't live past 18.

Defying those odds, today, she is very vocal about her disease and is hoping to help others.

"I think it's important because it is an unseen disease," Wesson said. "I mean, I look healthy most of the time."

Sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder that causes coronavirus-like symptoms, is one of the medical conditions the Centers for Disease Control says puts people at higher risk for several illnesses from COVID-19.

"I've kind of had these COVID restrictions in my life all along, but of course, I've had to be a lot more vigilant now," Wesson said.

According to the CDC:

  • Sickle cell mostly affects people of color
  • In the U.S., over 100,000 people have sickle cell disease
  • 3 to 4 million people carry the trait, most have no idea they are carriers
  • One out of 13 African Americans has the sickle cell trait

Dr. Modupe Idowu with UT Physicians Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center and associate professor of hematology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth says for a long time, having the sickle cell trait was thought to be a benign condition.

"So what is considered very mild, you know, the sickle cell trait, is not what we thought," Dr. Idowu said.

Now, doctors believe people with the trait who catch COVID-19 could get the worst of the symptoms and are more likely to die from the virus.

RELATED: US says it plans to provide free COVID-19 vaccine to all Americans

Parents won't have to worry about getting their children the COVID-19 vaccine under this new authorization.

"University of Wisconsin has a registry, and right now... one in five people with sickle cell disease have the most severe COVID infection, and about five percent of them are dying," Dr. Idowu said.

But it's not just coronavirus. The research is now finding people who carry the trait may be at severe risk for many other complications and diseases.

To find out your status, Dr. Idowu says all it takes is a simple blood test.

Ask your regular physician to screen you, and you should get your results within a week.

Dr. Idowu says if you don't know your status but go in for COVID-19 symptoms, that may be the best time to also get tested for sickle cell.

If both tests come back positive, doctors can give you more individualized care knowing you carry the trait.

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