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Lack of iron can cause anaemia, but excessive iron is toxic. The body has few ways of disposing of unwanted iron, so it builds up in tissues causing damage and disease.
Haemochromatosis – or genetic haemochromatosis (GH) – is a disorder that causes the body to absorb an excessive amount of iron from the diet.
We can only use a limited amount of iron and any excess is deposited around the body. This accumulates mainly in the liver, but can also affect the heart, pancreas and pituitary gland, damaging these vital body organs and resulting in a deterioration of their functional capacity.
Haemochromatosis is more common in Caucasian or white populations, with about 1 in 300 to 1 in 400 affected. About half that number are affected in black populations.
Men are more likely to have hereditary haemochromatosis and suffer from it at an earlier age, as women regularly lose iron in menstruation or use stores in pregnancy.
Although haemochromatosis and the potential for the condition to cause problems is present from birth, symptoms don’t usually become apparent until middle age.
Common symptoms that might be noticed then include:
•weakness, tiredness and lack of energy
•joint pain and stiffness – particularly in the hands and fingers
•a tanned or bronzed appearance of the skin
•impotence in men
•shrinking of testicles
Later, more serious symptoms may develop including:
•enlargement or damage to the liver
Organs commonly affected by haemochromatosis are the liver, heart, and endocrine glands.
Haemochromatosis may present with the following clinical syndromes:
*Cirrhosis of the liver
*Diabetes due to pancreatic islet cell failure
*Arthritis (iron deposition in joints)
*Tanning of the skin
The causes can be distinguished between primary cases (hereditary or genetically determined) and less frequent secondary cases (acquired during life). People of Celtic (Irish, Scottish, Welsh) origin have a particularly high incidence of whom about 10% are carriers of the gene and 1% sufferers from the condition.
The fact that most cases of haemochromatosis were inherited was well known for most of the 20th century, though they were incorrectly assumed to depend on a single gene. The overwhelming majority actually depend on mutations of the HFE gene discovered in 1996, but since then others have been discovered and sometimes are grouped together as “non-classical hereditary haemochromatosis”, “non-HFE related hereditary haemochromatosis”, or “non-HFE haemochromatosis
It is thought to be mainly caused by a mutation of a gene called HFE, which probably allows excess iron to be absorbed from the diet. This mutation is known as C282Y and to develop haemochromatosis you usually need two genes (one from each parent) to be C282Y.
However, not everyone with the mutation may develop the disease, and it may occur if only one C282Y gene is present.
Confusingly, another mutation labelled H63D elsewhere on the HFE gene may occur alone or with C282Y and also influence iron levels.
Other rare mutations may give rise to haemochromatosis, especially in children.
*Severe chronic haemolysis of any cause, including intravascular haemolysis and ineffective erythropoiesis (haemolysis within the bone marrow).
*Multiple frequent blood transfusions (either whole blood or just red blood cells), which are usually needed either by individuals with hereditary anaemias (such as beta-thalassaemia major, sickle cell anaemia, and Diamond–Blackfan anaemia) or by older patients with severe acquired anaemias such as in myelodysplastic syndromes.
*Excess parenteral iron supplements, such as can acutely happen in iron poisoning
*Excess dietary iron
*Some disorders do not normally cause haemochromatosis on their own, but may do so in the presence of other predisposing factors. These include cirrhosis (especially related to alcohol abuse), steatohepatitis of any cause, porphyria cutanea tarda, prolonged haemodialysis, post-portacaval shunting.
The onset of hereditary haemochromatosis usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 60 as the build up of iron takes years.
However, a rapid form of the disease does affect children. If left untreated excess iron builds up in the organs especially the liver, heart and pancreas. This may cause heart or liver failure, which can be fatal.
There are several methods available for diagnosing and monitoring iron loading including:
Serum ferritin is a low-cost, readily available, and minimally invasive method for assessing body iron stores. However, the major problem with using it as an indicator of iron overload is that it can be elevated in a range of other medical conditions unrelated to iron levels including infection, inflammation, fever, liver disease, renal disease, and cancer. Also, total iron binding capacity may be low, but can also be normal.
The standard of practice in diagnosis of hemochromatosis was recently reviewed by Pietrangelo. Positive HFE analysis confirms the clinical diagnosis of hemochromatosis in asymptomatic individuals with blood tests showing increased iron stores, or for predictive testing of individuals with a family history of hemochromatosis. The alleles evaluated by HFE gene analysis are evident in ~80% of patients with hemochromatosis; a negative report for HFE gene does not rule out hemochromatosis. In a patient with negative HFE gene testing, elevated iron status for no other obvious reason, and family history of liver disease, additional evaluation of liver iron concentration is indicated. In this case, diagnosis of hemochromatosis is based on biochemical analysis and histologic examination of a liver biopsy. Assessment of the hepatic iron index (HII) is considered the “gold standard” for diagnosis of hemochromatosis.
MRI is emerging as an alternative to liver biopsy for measuring liver iron loading. For measuring liver iron concentrations, R2-MRI (also known as FerriScan) has been validated and is coming into use in medical centers. It is not recommended in practice guidelines at this time
A third of those untreated develop hepatocellular carcinoma.
Routine treatment in an otherwise-healthy person consists of regularly scheduled phlebotomies (bloodletting). When first diagnosed, the phlebotomies may be fairly frequent, perhaps as often as once a week, until iron levels can be brought to within normal range. Once iron and other markers are within the normal range, phlebotomies may be scheduled every other month or every three months depending upon the patient’s rate of iron loading.
For those unable to tolerate routine blood draws, there is a chelating agent available for use. The drug Deferoxamine binds with iron in the bloodstream and enhances its elimination via urine and faeces. Typical treatment for chronic iron overload requires subcutaneous injection over a period of 8–12 hours daily. Two newer iron chelating drugs that are licensed for use in patients receiving regular blood transfusions to treat thalassemia (and, thus, who develop iron overload as a result) are deferasirox and deferiprone.
Haemochromatosis is treated by:
•Reducing the amount of iron absorbed by the body – patients are advised to avoid iron-rich foods and alcohol.
•Removing excess iron from the body by removing blood from the body (venesection therapy or phlebotomy). Initially this may involve removing a unit of blood a week (sometimes for many months) until iron levels in the blood are normal. Then most people can be kept stable by removing a unit of blood every 2-3 months.
If phlebotomy is started before liver damage occurs the outlook is good, and the affected person can expect to live an otherwise normal life.
Acquired haemochromatosis is normally treated by a drug that binds iron and allows it to be excreted from the body.
Associated problems such as heart failure and diabetes are treated as appropriate.
*Limit the amount of iron in your diet.
*Eating red or organ meats (such as liver) is not recommended.
*Iron supplements should also be avoided, including iron combined with other multivitamins.
*Vitamin C increases iron absorption from the gut and intake should also be limited.
*Avoid excess alcohol as this may make liver disease worse
Your prospects largely depend on the stage at which the disease was diagnosed. Symptoms of tiredness and general weakness often improve, but joint problems may not.
Abdominal pain and liver enlargement can also lessen or disappear, and heart function may also improve with treatment.
However, liver cirrhosis is irreversible and a liver transplant may be required.
Patients with liver disease are also usually monitored for liver cancer, which can be a long-term complication.
Disclaimer: This information is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advise or help. It is always best to consult with a Physician about serious health concerns. This information is in no way intended to diagnose or prescribe remedies.This is purely for educational purpose.
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