Hereditary Spherocytosis is a genetic disorder characterized by red blood cells that are fragile and spherical in shape instead of the normal flat disk shape. The abnormal shape makes it difficult for red blood cells to pass through the spleen. The spleen's function is to purify the blood and safeguard the immune function by fighting against the potentially dangerous bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms in the blood. In case of Spherocytosis, the membrane of the red blood cells is defective lending it a spherical shape. When these defective blood cells pass through the spleen, they break and destroy causing premature death of the red blood cells. The shortage of blood cells gives rise to severe anemia. It is an inherited type of Hemolytic Anemia. A parent with the disease has a 50% chance of having a child with the disease. Spherocytosis is most common in people of northern European descent.
The symptoms can vary from mild to severe. In severe cases, the disorder may be found in early childhood. In mild cases it may go unnoticed until adulthood. Patients with Spherocytosis exhibit all the symptoms associated with anemia such as fatigue, irritability, shortness of breath and muscle weakness. They also appear pale and weak. In addition to these symptoms, Spherocytosis also causes enlarged spleen and jaundice with yellow skin and eyes. Jaundice occurs due to the elevated levels of serum bilirubin as the red blood cells are destroyed within the body. Excess bilirubin, sometimes, also results in in the gallbladder. These stones may cause pain, infection or may block the tubes that lead out of the gallbladder.
Family history is checked for hereditary factor and the abdomen has to be checked for enlarged spleen. Following blood tests may be performed to support the clinical examination:
- CBC or complete blood count test to check for anemia.
- The Reticulocyte Count Test is performed to measure the new and immature red blood cells produced in the bone marrow. The reticulocyte count is usually higher in cases of Spherocytosis.
- Osmotic Fragility Test is performed to measure the fragility of the red blood cells. This involves taking a blood sample and suspending in a salt solution and then measuring the destruction and fragility of the cells.
- Coombs Test to measure the antibodies in the blood.
- Blood test to check for bilirubin levels.
Splenectomy is the most definitive treatment for hereditary Spherocytosis. By removing the spleen, red blood cells are prevented from damage and are allowed to stay alive for a longer duration. However, removing a spleen makes the patient susceptible to infections for a lifetime. Hence patients need to take penicillin (or another antibiotic) for the rest of their lives. Immunization against pneumococcal and meningococcal infections is also prescribed. In case of severe anemia, blood transfusion is advised.