Sickle Cell Elimination Program: Nurturing Healthy Lives in India’s Tribal Heartlands

y prioritising early detection, management, prevention, and community engagement, we can pave the way for healthier and happier lives among India's tribal populations.
Keywords: Sickle Cell, Elimination, Health, Tribal, Genetic, Disease, Future, Diagnosis
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Sickle cell disease, a hereditary blood disorder, casts a long shadow over the lives of those affected by it. While it is prevalent among various populations worldwide, its impact is particularly pronounced among tribal communities in India. This debilitating condition not only causes anemia but also inflicts agonising pain crises, stunts growth, and detrimentally affects multiple organs, including the lungs, heart, kidneys, eyes, bones, and the brain. In a country as diverse as India, with its rich tapestry of cultures and traditions, sickle cell disease stands as a poignant reminder of the persistent health disparities. However, it is essential to acknowledge that SCD is not confined to tribal communities alone; it also affects non-tribal individuals. With India having the highest density of tribal populations globally, addressing SCD becomes paramount to improving public health.

As of the 2011 Census, India’s tribal population amounted to 8.6% of the whole, totaling a staggering 67.8 million individuals distributed across various Indian states. These tribal communities have unique cultural identities and lifestyles but are often marginalised in terms of healthcare access. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s (MoHFW) tribal health expert committee highlighted SCD as one of the ten major health challenges disproportionately affecting tribal populations, emphasising the urgency of intervention. These indigenous communities often inhabit remote and underserved regions, making access to healthcare and awareness about genetic disorders like sickle cell disease challenging.

Recognising the pressing need to combat SCD, in 2016 the Ministry of Health, under the National Health Mission (NHM), initiated efforts to address hemoglobinopathies, which include both Thalassemia and Sickle Cell Disease. Comprehensive guidelines for the prevention and management of hemoglobinopathies were released, along with provisions for funding the screening and management of SCD. Subsequently, states have submitted proposals for support, and ongoing efforts have been made to alleviate the burden of this debilitating disease among affected communities.

The Challenge of Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle cell disease, also known as Sickle Cell Anemia (SCA), is a genetic disorder characterized by abnormal hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells. These misshapen cells can block blood flow, leading to severe pain crises, organ damage, and a host of complications. The disease primarily affects individuals of African, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mediterranean descent. Among these, tribal populations in India bear a disproportionate burden of the disease. SCD remains a significant health challenge in India, particularly among tribal populations. However, the Indian government, through various ministries and departments, has been taking proactive steps to address this pressing issue. These initiatives aim to improve awareness, diagnosis, treatment, and support for individuals affected by SCD.

SCD Support Corner: 

  1. Central Repository of Data

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs has launched the SCD Support Corner, a pioneering portal designed to collect real-time data and provide essential information related to Sickle Cell Disease. This portal serves as a one-stop resource for patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals to access accurate information, research findings, and support services. By centralising data and information, this initiative will help create a comprehensive repository, aiding policymakers in making informed decisions and implementing targeted interventions to combat SCD effectively.

  1. Promotion of Yoga-Dependent Lifestyle

Under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, an ‘Action Research’ project has been initiated to promote a Yoga-dependent lifestyle among individuals suffering from SCD. Yoga is known for its holistic health benefits, including improved blood circulation and reduced stress. By incorporating yoga practices into the daily routines of SCD patients, this initiative aims to reduce the complications associated with the disease, enhance overall well-being, and

improve the quality of life for those affected.

  1. Expanded Screening Programs

Certain states, such as Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, have expanded their screening programs for SCD from hospitals to school-based screenings. This expansion allows for early detection of the disease, especially among children, and facilitates prompt medical intervention. Extrapolating these successful screening efforts and implementation strategies to other states across India will be crucial for accurately mapping the prevalence of SCD. It will also ensure that affected individuals receive timely diagnosis and the necessary medical care.

  1. Extended Validity of Disability Certificates

Recognising the long-term challenges faced by SCD patients, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has taken a significant step by increasing the validity of disability certificates for SCD patients. These certificates are essential for accessing various government benefits and services. The extension of validity from one year to three years provides relief to patients and their families by reducing the administrative burden of frequent renewals. It reflects the government’s commitment to enhancing the lives of individuals affected by SCD and ensuring their access to support services.

The Birth of the Sickle Cell Elimination Program

Given the critical need for targeted intervention, there is a growing consensus that a dedicated scheme or mission to detect, manage, prevent, and create awareness about sickle cell disease is essential. The proposed Sickle Cell Elimination Program would be a comprehensive initiative designed to address the unique challenges faced by tribal populations in India.

Key Components of the Sickle Cell Elimination Program

  1. Early Detection and Screening: The program would prioritise widespread screening in tribal regions to identify carriers and affected individuals, enabling early intervention and genetic counseling.
  2. Management and Treatment: Access to specialised healthcare services and treatment options would be enhanced, with a focus on alleviating pain crises and managing complications effectively. 
  3. Preventive Measures: Education and awareness campaigns would be intensified to empower tribal communities with knowledge about sickle cell disease, its transmission, and preventive measures. 
  4. Research and Innovation: Investment in research for better diagnostic tools, treatments, and genetic therapies would be encouraged to improve the quality of life for those living with sickle cell disease.
  5. Community Engagement: Involvement of tribal communities in decision-making and program implementation would ensure culturally sensitive approaches and foster trust.

A Point-of-Care Field Study in Tribal India

In a recent point-of-care field study conducted in remote tribal areas of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the Gazelle Test showcased remarkable sensitivity and specificity in detecting various hemoglobin types, including HbA, HbS, and HbF. The study found that Gazelle could accurately differentiate between different hemoglobin phenotypes, distinguishing between normal, carrier, and disease states with precision. This device can be easily managed on site at any temperature One of the most significant findings from the study was that Gazelle identified all patients with SCD (including HbSS and Thalassemia Major) with 100% accuracy. This level of precision is a game-changer in SCD diagnosis, as it ensures that individuals with the disease can be promptly identified and receive appropriate care.

The Gazelle Test exhibited exceptional performance across various diagnostic comparisons; the Government can promote this Made-in-India device for SCD as  a low-cost, rapid, and accurate diagnostic tool. By offering a cost-effective and accessible diagnostic, Gazelle can bridge the gap in SCD diagnosis, ensuring that affected individuals, especially those in underserved and remote areas, receive timely medical attention and appropriate care. It represents a significant step forward in the fight against SCD in India and beyond, promising a brighter and healthier future for millions of individuals affected by this debilitating blood disorder.  With a dedicated Sickle Cell Elimination Program, we have an opportunity to alleviate the suffering and break the cycle of this debilitating genetic disorder. By prioritising early detection, management, prevention, and community engagement, we can pave the way for healthier and happier lives among India’s tribal populations. The time to act is now, ensuring that the tagline “Sickle Cell Disease: A Disease of the Past” becomes a reality for future generations.

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Akanksha Singh

Akanksha Singh is a Policy Research Consultant MA LLB at Green Genome.

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