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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Every year hundreds of thousands of babies all over the world are born with sickle cell anemia. It's an inherited disorder that, without treatment, is usually fatal early in life. And a study out this week finds the disease will become more common in the coming decades. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, global health experts hope that knowledge will raise awareness about sickle cell anemia, especially in developing countries.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Patients with the disease have red blood cells that are bent, like sickles. It's easy to see them under a microscope. These misshapen blood cells clog up blood vessels and prevent oxygen from reaching different parts of the body. Patricia Kavanagh is a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and an expert on sickle cell disease.

PATRICIA KAVANAGH: The hallmark of this disease is severe pain, often requiring IV opioids to control it. And this is something that will continue throughout their life.

CHATTERJEE: Here in the United States, the disease is increasingly treated with a drug called hydroxyurea that boosts the body's ability to create normal shaped blood cells. Today about 90,000 to 100,000 people in this country have sickle cell anemia. And newborns have been routinely screened for the disorder since the late 1980s. Babies that test positive are treated with simple, inexpensive measures like penicillin to ward off potential infections.

KAVANAGH: Before we started using penicillin in all these babies, they often would die of overwhelming infection, often before their fifth birthday.

CHATTERJEE: But in tropical regions of the world, the vast majority of babies born with sickle cell anemia still die as infants. That's because most developing countries aren't aware of how widespread the disorder is. A few months ago, Fred Piel, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford published the first global estimates.

FRED PIEL: We estimate that it's about 300,000 births affected by sickle cell anemia per year.

CHATTERJEE: Now, in this new study in the journal PLOS Medicine, Piel reports that the number of newborns with the disease will grow rapidly.

PIEL: We projected it would be about 400,000 by 2050.

CHATTERJEE: Global health researchers say the study could make a big difference in countries like India, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the numbers are among the highest. David Osrin is a pediatrician at the University College of London.

DAVID OSRIN: I think the paper's important because the first thing to do in situations like this is to put the disease on to the radar.

CHATTERJEE: He says that's the first step towards developing programs to identify and treat the disease.

OSRIN: Now to do this, you need some kind of screening program. And the likelihood of being able to implement this in the short term is quite limited. But I think it should be something we try to work towards.

CHATTERJEE: He says screening is worthwhile because it's not hard to immediately save lives. Once you identify affected babies, you can start them on antibiotics. And Patricia Kavanagh, the sickle cell expert at Boston Medical Center says the drug that boosts normal blood cells is a realistic treatment option for developing countries.

KAVANAGH: It's a generic drug, quite cheap.

CHATTERJEE: Kavanagh says all this should help persuade governments that they should add sickle cell anemia to the list of diseases that need resources. She says TB, malaria, HIV are indeed important.

KAVANAGH: But please put sickle cell disease on your radar as well when you design your public health interventions.

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

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