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Commemorating World Anaemia Day |16 February 2024

Anaemia affects millions of people worldwide, with many of them unaware that they are living with this condition. Anaemia can be described as a condition that develops when your blood has less healthy red blood cells or less haemoglobin than normal. Haemoglobin is a protein found within red blood cells which carries oxygen around the body. A person with anaemia therefore has difficulty getting enough oxygen to all body cells. This results in various signs, symptoms and complications.

World Anaemia Awareness Day is fairly recent, having been created in 2022 by Human Touch Media Foundation and the Society for the Advancement of Patient Blood Management (SABM). This was done in response to the problems associated with anaemia globally, in particular iron deficiency, which is the most common form of anaemia in the world and mainly affects women and children. The day is marked on February 13 as 13 represents the ideal haemoglobin number for optimal blood health.

World Anaemia Awareness Day aims to be a platform for sensitising the public about anaemia. It is also a global driver to promote the importance of preventive action in order to support blood health. The theme for World Anaemia Awareness Day in 2024 is ‘The Best Blood is Your Blood’. This reinforces the importanceof taking the necessary action to improve your blood health by taking preventive actions whenever possible.


Causes of anaemia

There are different types of anaemia which are linked to various causes. We will not go through all of them but rather try to focus on the most common ones. Anaemia may develop because your body either does not produce enough red blood cells, your body destroys too many red blood cells or there are too much red blood cells being lost from the body.


Body does not produce enough red blood cells

In order for your body to make sufficient amounts of red blood cells, it needs certain vitamins like vitamin B12 and folic acid and minerals like iron as well as protein. These nutrients can usually be acquired from the food that you eat, so long as you’re having a diversified diet.

Deficiency of iron, vitamin B12 or folic acid resulting from poor dietary intake or poor absorption of these nutrients can lead to anaemia. Certain chronic diseases which are conditions that take a long time to develop can also hinder the body’s ability to make enough red blood cells and therefore cause anaemia. This includes diseases like cancer, HIV/Aids, arthritis, chronic inflammatory diseases and kidney disease. There may also be times when your body has a higher need for red blood cells beyond what it is making such as during pregnancy, hence increasing the risk of developing anaemia over time.


Body cells destroy too many red blood cells

Red blood cells naturally have a lifespan of about 120 days, after which they are broken down and replaced with new cells. At times however your body destroys red blood cells before they reach the end of their natural lifespan. The anaemia occurs because red blood cells are being destroyed in such large numbers that your bone marrow cannot keep up and produce enough new red blood cells to replace the ones that are being broken down.

This may happen because of inherited conditions like sickle cell anaemia or thalassemia. It may also be due to acquired conditions like lupus whereby the immune system attacks the red blood cells or from infections like malaria or hepatitis.


Excessive red blood cells lost from the body

One of the main reasons why you may lose red blood cells from the body is through blood loss. Blood loss can happen slowly and inconspicuously in the body. Some of the reasons why you may experience blood loss include stomach ulcers, cancer, haemorrhoids, gastritis, heavy period, child birth, heavy bleeding due to injury or surgery and the use of certain medications like aspirin.

The loss of red blood cells can cause low levels of iron in your body. Without enough iron, your body will make fewer red blood cells than it needs, and the red blood cells it does make will have less haemoglobin than normal, increasing the risk of anaemia. This form of anaemia is known as iron deficiency anaemia, and is the form of anaemia that most of us are familiar with.


Symptoms of anaemia

The symptoms of anaemia may be mild or severe depending on the type and cause of anaemia. It is noteworthy that some individuals with mild anaemia may not experience any symptoms. The symptoms usually become more noticeable as the anaemia gets worse.

Some common symptoms to keep an eye out for include headache, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a general feeling of weakness, fast and irregular heartbeat, coldness and numbness of hands and feet, shortness of breath even when at rest, pale or yellow skin, brittle nails and a strong urge to eat non-food items like ice or clay (known as ‘pica’).


Treatment of anaemia

Before deciding on the best form of treatment, the type, cause and severity of anaemia should first be known. The main goals of treatment are to: increase your red blood cell count or haemoglobin level to improve oxygen delivery to body cells; treat any existing underlying condition which is causing your anaemia; prevent anaemia complications such as heart or nerve damage; relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Treatment may not be necessary if you have mild or moderate anaemia with no symptoms, or your anaemia is improving. However, if the anaemia is severe then treatment will be required. Anaemia resulting from a deficiency of a nutrient like iron, vitamin B12 or folic acid is usually treated by altering the diet. Depending on the specific deficiency, you will be encouraged to include food sources that are rich in the particular nutrient of interest. If diet alone is not enough, then a supplement may also be prescribed.

For other forms of anaemia, medicines, procedures, surgery, or lifestyle changes may be needed depending on the specific cause and type. If you have severe anaemia which will not improve with other recommended treatment, you might need blood transfusions.

If you suspect that you might have anaemia, get in touch with a health professional today so you may undergo the necessary tests, which can then be followed with the best treatment depending on the diagnosis.

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Yours in health

The Nutrition Team



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