Caring for Africa's sickle cell children: will we rise to the challenge?
BACKGROUND: Most of the world's sickle cell disease (SCD) burden is in Africa, where it is a major contributor to child morbidity and mortality. Despite the low cost of many preventive SCD interventions, insufficient resources have been allocated, and progress in alleviating the SCD burden has lagged behind other public-health efforts in Africa. The recent announcement of massive new funding for research into curative SCD therapies is encouraging in the long term, but over the next few decades, it is unlikely to help Africa's SCD children substantially. MAIN DISCUSSION: A major barrier to progress has been the absence of large-scale early-life screening. Most SCD deaths in Africa probably occur before cases are even diagnosed. In the last few years, novel inexpensive SCD point-of-care test kits have become widely available and have been deployed successfully in African field settings. These kits could potentially enable universal early SCD screening. Other recent developments are the expansion of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine towards near-universal coverage, and the demonstrated safety, efficacy, and increasing availability and affordability of hydroxyurea across the continent. Most elements of standard healthcare for SCD children that are already proven to work in the West, could and should now be implemented at scale in Africa. National and continental SCD research and care networks in Africa have also made substantial progress, assembling care guidelines and enabling the deployment and scale-up of SCD public-health systems. Substantial logistical, cultural, and awareness barriers remain, but with sufficient financial and political will, similar barriers have already been overcome in efforts to control other diseases in Africa. CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS: Despite remaining challenges, several high-SCD-burden African countries have the political will and infrastructure for the rapid implementation and scale-up of comprehensive SCD childcare programs. A globally funded effort starting with these countries and expanding elsewhere in Africa and to other high-burden countries, including India, could transform the lives of SCD children worldwide and help countries to attain their Sustainable Development Goals. This endeavor would also require ongoing research focused on the unique needs and challenges of SCD patients, and children in particular, in regions of high prevalence.