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New help for sickle-cell anaemia sufferers

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Adrian Warner

Bermuda Hospitals Board has unveiled a new machine to vastly improve its service for sickle-cell patients.

The Spectra Optia therapeutic apheresis machine, which extracts and filters blood, was bought with financial help from the Bermuda Sickle Cell Association.

Association treasurer Adrian Warner said: “We recognise that this machine will significantly improve the lives of those of us living with sickle-cell anaemia, so we are very happy to pledge our support with a $25,000 donation.

“We were desperate to have the hospital offer this service and are still actively fundraising to meet our goal.”

The machine, which acts as a sort of cell exchange, can extract red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets or plasma and simultaneously replace the removed components with the required product when necessary. BHB consultant haematologist Eyitayo Fakunle expressed his gratitude to the Hospitals Board. Dr Fakunle described the equipment as “simple”, adding: “It’s very efficient in extracting red blood cells and is the only equipment that can perform the full exchange.”

Mr Warner, who is one of about 80 people diagnosed with sickle cell in Bermuda, has already benefited from the machine.

He said: “It drastically reduces the amount of time a patient has to undergo transfusion.

“Usually it took four to six hours for a manual partial red cell exchange treatment, but with the new machine a full red cell exchange is finished in 90 minutes. This means a larger volume of my blood is being processed and so the number of treatments I require has been reduced.

“I used to come in once a month, but now it’s every six to eight weeks.”

Mr Warner has undergone treatment three times this year. His red cell exchange was previously done manually and since its introduction in January he has seen a significant reduction in his need for treatment.

“I am elated that the machine is here,” he said.

He told The Royal Gazette: “The great thing about it is I haven’t noticed any physical changes at all. The treatment before was so effective.”

Mr Warner said the real difference has been a financial one as his previous medications were “extremely expensive”.

Sufferers undergoing manual treatment typically require an iron chelation medication administered alongside transfusion protocol to cut down on iron overload.

“This machine negates the need for that drug,” Mr Warner said.

“We have patients that have built up such a high iron overload that even when they start on this machine they’re going to have to remain on the medication for the next two to three years and just can’t be on it because of the expense.”

Also present at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital yesterday was Salintae Tuzo, fellow founding board member and “sickler” who suffers from “small crises”: a common symptom characterised by intense physical pain. She has found coping mechanisms to keep these instances “under control.”

Ms Tuzo said she pays attention to her body and says “no to stress”, adding: “So that’s water, rest, and paying attention to the signs in my body and knowing my body inside out.”

As September is Sickle Cell Awareness Month, the committee has given awareness packages to the Gosling Ward, sponsored by Argus. It has information about the association and acts as a guide for parents whose children have been diagnosed. It includes an illustrated book written by Brenda Miles, a doctor Mr Warner met while undergoing treatment in Canada.

Shakira Warner, Mr Warner’s sister, explained: “It’s just a book to help children deal with pain, whether that be the everyday bumps and bruises or a more chronic pain that sicklers get,” .

Jeanne Atherden, the Minister of Health, said to Mr Warner: “I applaud your efforts and those of your committee” adding “Keeping abreast of the latest technology is essential.”

Adrian Warner, treasurer of Bermuda Sickle Cell Association, and Jeanne Atherden, the Minister of Health, with the new sickle-cell machine(Photograph by Akil Simmons)