A DRUG that could drastically reduce sickle cell anaemia complications will soon be made available in all of Bahrain's health centres.
More than 220 sickle cell sufferers have died in Bahrain over the past six years from complications associated with the hereditary blood disorder.
It is characterised by abnormal blood cells that have a tendency to take on a rigid, sickle-like shape and sufferers are prone to a number of acute and chronic health problems such as infection, attacks of severe pain known as "sickle-cell crisis" and stroke.
Hydroxyurea, a chemotherapy drug that also has antiretroviral properties, is effective in breaking down cells that are prone to sickle - but up until now it has only been available at the country's main hospital, Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC).
However, it will now be made available at all of the country's government-run health centres, Health Minister Sadiq Al Shehabi announced at the opening of a sickle cell workshop held yesterday at The Westin in City Centre Bahrain.
"This is part of the ministry's efforts to ensure all support to sickle cell patients and to reduce the mortality rate," Mr Al Shehabi told the GDN on the sidelines of the workshop.
"The medicine (hydroxyurea) which was until now available only at the SMC will be made available at all the primary healthcare facilities also."
The move follows a visit by a team of experts from US-based Johns Hopkins Medicine International Sickle Cell Centre for Adults, who came to Bahrain in January.
The four-member team visited the Hereditary Blood Disorder Centre, interviewed patients, medical staff and volunteers and subsequently submitted a set of recommendations on how Bahrain can improve care for patients with sickle cell anaemia.
"This is part of the implementation of the recommendations from the Johns Hopkins team and more workshops will follow to train physicians and nurses on the usage of this medicine and on other recommendations," said Mr Al Shehabi.
Health Ministry Under-Secretary for Hospital Affairs Dr Waleed Al Manea said that other new medicines were also set to be introduced for sickle cell sufferers, although he did not divulge what those would be.
Hydroxyurea is currently being used by around one in four sick cell patients in Bahrain, according to SMC genetic blood diseases consultant Dr Jaffar Al Tooq.
"The medicine has been used in Bahrain since the late nineties and is currently being used by 20 to 30 per cent of patients," he told the GDN.
"But there was a restriction on its prescription and this was limited to the haematology department at the SMC.
"We found that increasing the use of hydroxyurea reduces the incidence of mortality, intensity of pain, the number of painful crises and the number of blood transfusions, as well as lowering other complications.
"So we have decided to make it available at all primary health centres, as a majority of sickle cell patents go there."
Dr Al Tooq said that restrictions on the use of the drug in the past sometimes made patients worry about its side effects, which can range from nausea and hair loss to skin ulcers, fever and sores.
"We never had any effective training session on how to handle the side effects and to give the effective dosages, so this move will address all these concerns," said the doctor, adding that the drug could be prescribed to all patients over the age of two.
Bahrain Society for Sickle Cell Anaemia Patient Care president Zakreya Al Kadhem welcomed the new move, saying that providing hydroxyurea in health centres would help ease sufferer's pain attacks significantly.
"This medication will help relieve the incidence of seizures by 90pc," he said, while at the same time renewing his calls for the findings of the Johns Hopkins' report to be made public.
Six Bahrainis have died so far this year from complications related to sickle cell, while 46 deaths were recorded last year.
This compares with 32 deaths in 2013, 47 in 2012, 32 in 2011, 35 in 2010, and 25 in 2009.