While there is an inexpensive, generic medication that can stop severe pain and the need for blood transfusions associated with sickle cell disease, few patients receive the treatment, Reuters reports. An NIH consensus panel discussed the issue on Wednesday. Members of consensus panels discuss "controversial medical subjects to give unbiased, impartial guidance," Reuters reports.
Sickle cell disease is most common among people of African, Hispanic and Mediterranean descent. People with the disease have abnormally shaped red blood cells that die early or get stuck in blood vessels, which can cause pain and organ damage. The medication hydroxyurea can treat pain associated with the disease.
Otis Brawley -- who chaired the consensus panel meeting and is a professor of hematology, oncology and epidemiology at Emory University -- said that about half of those who have sickle cell disease could benefit from hydroxyurea. However, no more than 3% to 5% of patients are likely using the drug, according to the panel. Brawley also is the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.
According to Brawley, about 20 companies manufacture the treatment. Barriers
Brawley said, "One of the first problems is we don't even know how many people have sickle cell disease." He added, "You can find data that says the number of sickle cell patients is between 50,000 and 75,000, and you can find other papers that say it is between 50,000 and 120,000."
Another issue is that the "number of doctors who are interested in specializing in sickle cell disease is going down dramatically," Brawley said. According to Reuters, many sickle cell patients are minorities and people who are underinsured or uninsured.
Concerns about safety are another barrier to widening use of the treatment. Brawley said, "If you do an Internet search for hydroxyurea, there are all kinds of negative things there that say it causes cancer ... decreased sperm count. All of these things are really overblown".
Source: Kaiser Family Foundation