CNN Food and Health

Ignorance exacerbates iron overload disease

November 25, 1995
Web posted at: 11:15 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Elizabeth Schwartz

blood pressure patient

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Iron overload disease affects one of every 200 Americans, but most people -- even doctors -- aren't even aware this potentially deadly genetic condition exists.

A flawed gene causes a million-odd healthy Americans to absorb too much iron from foods even if their diet is relatively low in iron. The result: Large amounts of the substance get stored in their joints and organs.

Iron overload disease is one of the most common genetic disorders, occurring twice as commonly as sickle cell anemia and 10 times more frequently than cystic fibrosis.

Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the condition often goes undiagnosed because its symptoms mimic many other diseases.

Ray Yip

"We have got literally thousands of people whose lives are being shortchanged by this disease, and yet there's little effort. Nothing's being done about it," says the CDC's Dr. Ray Yip. (176K AIFF sound or 176K WAV sound)

He thinks it is a "grossly under-recognized" condition, and wants more physicians to start paying attention to it. "It's being routinely missed in the clinical meetings, and many practicing doctors are not aware of the presence of this condition or think it's so rare that it's not worth looking for," he says.

Iron overload can cause people as young as 30 to start developing arthritis, cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure.

nurse and patient

Yip has proposed that doctors begin routinely testing patients for iron overload -- or hemachromatosis, as it is known among medical professionals -- at annual physicals.

Once the disease is detected, treatment is both simple and cheap. Patients will have to give blood from once a week to once every few months in order to flush out the iron from their joints and organs.

If Yip's proposal is implemented, the CDC will spend $2 million educating doctors and establishing a monitoring system so people can find out if the disease runs in their family.

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