FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) --About 100,000 Americans have sickle cell disease -- a genetic condition where the body's red blood cells are deformed, clogging up arteries, and causing pain, disability or major stroke, even in kids. Patients who suffer strokes often have regular blood transfusions to prevent a repeat attack. Researchers now say those transfusions can be crucial for many more young sickle cell patients, even those who are showing no outward signs of brain injury.
Alexis Haynes, 12, has come a long way. At age 6, a sudden stroke put her in a coma for a full month.
"The doctors told us that she wouldn't be able to walk, she wouldn't be able to talk, she wouldn't remember us," Kelvin Haynes, Alexis' father told ABC30.
Every six weeks, Alexis spends hours getting her blood transfused. New red blood cells replace her sickle-shaped ones. While Alexis' stroke was apparent, experts say one in three children with sickle cell suffer silent strokes.
"These are injury to parts of the brain that don't control speech, they don't control movement in an arm or a leg, so they typically go unnoticed," Michael Noetzel, M.D., and Pediatric Neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, told ABC30.
These kids have a higher risk of memory problems. Many have trouble at school. They're also at much higher risk for having a major stroke.
Dr. Noetzel studied 196 children age 5 and older, who had brain scans that showed evidence of silent strokes. For three years, 99 received monthly transfusions, the rest did not. Researchers found the transfusions reduced the risk of strokes of any kind by 58 percent.
"Now that we have an intervention at hand that could be helpful-there's no reason not to think about screening younger children," Dr. Noetzel explained.
Identifying kids at risk before any damage is done.
Risks from transfusions include infections, reactions to donated blood and buildup of iron in the bloodstream. Researchers are planning longer-term studies to see whether transfusions, in combination with other sickle cell treatment options -- like stem cell transplantation -- can help prevent kids from losing cognitive function.
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Judy Martin Finch