Thalassemia is a blood disorder. It causes anemia. Anemia means that you do not have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen in the blood and deliver it to the rest of the body.
Thalassemia is due to less hemoglobin than normal. Hemoglobin is the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen. It is made up of 2 proteins, alpha and beta. If the body cannot make enough of either of these 2 proteins, or if their structure isn't normal, the red blood cells cannot carry oxygen properly.
If the problem is with the alpha protein, the disorder is called alpha thalassemia. This form mostly affects people of Southeast Asian, Indian, Chinese, or Filipino ancestry. This form may be very mild and may not cause serious health problem. However, babies with severe alpha thalassemia usually die before or shortly after birth.
If the problem is with the beta protein, it is called beta thalassemia. This form affects people of Mediterranean (Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern), Asian, or African descent.
Severe beta thalassemia is often called Cooley's anemia. Cooley's anemia is the most common severe form of thalassemia in the US.
Thalassemia is passed from parents to children. People with moderate to severe forms of the disorder received genes from both parents. A child who inherits a thalassemia gene from one parent and normal genes from the other parent is a carrier. Carriers often have few or no signs of illness, but they can pass the genes on to their children.
The symptoms depend on the type and severity of the disease. In more severe types, such as Cooley's anemia, symptoms are seen in early childhood and may include:
Thalassemia is diagnosed using blood tests. Taking a family history and doing blood tests on family members may also help make the diagnosis. Prenatal testing can find out if an unborn baby has the disorder and how severe it is likely to be.
Cooley's anemia is usually diagnosed in early childhood. Your child should be tested if he has anemia and is a member of an ethnic group that is at risk.
Treatment depends on which type your child has, and on how severe it is.