Transfusional iron (Fe) overload remains a significant problem among patients with chronic, transfusion dependent anemias, especially in transfusion dependent ß-thalassemia (Thal) syndromes. If not treated vigorously with chelation, Fe overload in Thal is associated with significant organ damage, especially with chronic liver disease and cardiac abnormalities which can contribute to morbidity and mortality. In recent decades, the significance of Fe overload in sickle cell disease (SCD) has also been recognized especially among pediatric patients on chronic transfusion regimens predominantly for primary and secondary prevention of stroke. The prevalence and significance of this problem among adult SCD patients is less clear, although it is widely believed that episodic, mostly unnecessary transfusion practices play a more prominent role in this patient population. There have been reports of an association between iron overload and increased morbidity and mortality among adult SCD patients; it has also been speculated that the chronic inflammatory state that exists in SCD affords some degree of protection against severe organ damage through upregulation of hepcidin and sequestration of Fe in these patients. We performed a retrospective review of 635 adult SCD patients followed at our Center to define and ascertain the epidemiology, prevalence, etiology, and clinical correlates of transfusional Fe overload. Fe overload was defined as two consecutive serum ferritin values of > 1000 ng/ml. 80 patients (12.6%) met this criterion. Of these, 38 were male and 42 were female. Genotype distribution was: 73 SS, 3 S-β+ thal, 2 S-β0 thal and 2 SC. The mean age was 35.9 (range 18-69). Out of the 80 patients with transfusional Fe overload, 24 (30%) were/had been on a chronic transfusion regimen (23 for secondary or primary stroke prevention and one for childhood cardiomyopathy). Seventy percent of the patients (n=56) developed Fe overload from episodic transfusions predominantly performed at outlying community hospitals. The mean highest ferritin value was 4991 ng/ml (range 1,052-16,500). There was no correlation between ferritin levels and the number of hospitalizations or painful episodes (p=0.9). Thirty seven patients (46.2%) had a history of chelation therapy (with desferoxamine, deferasirox, or both). In 25 patients who have been on deferasirox for a period of 6 months or more, serum ferritin levels decreased from 4452.3 to 3876.6 ng/ml (p=0.3239). Our retrospective study shows that transfusional Fe overload is not rare among adults with SCD and develops predominantly as a result of episodic blood transfusions. This underscores the importance of the development and dissemination of evidence based guidelines, especially for episodic transfusions in SCD. A careful study of the extent and degree of organ damage associated with transfusional Fe overload in SCD and why less than half (46.2%) of patients are exposed to chelation therapy needs to be done. These studies should include liver iron concentration (LIC), cardiac iron and liver histology, when indicated, in parallel with serum hepcidin levels. The fact that the reduction in serum ferritin levels with deferasirox did not reach statistical significance in this cohort can be explained by the relatively small number of patients as well as by the short period (6 months) of exposure to chelation therapy.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.