Thalassaemia on the decline

Dr Zilfalil: Government intervention has reduced the prevalence of thalassaemia in Malaysia, through systematic screening of those in secondary school, among others.

PETALING JAYA: The incidence of thalassaemia in Malaysia is on the decline due to more screening and awareness campaigns.

With one in 20 individuals being a carrier of thalassaemia here, screening pregnant women or their newborns has proven to be an invaluable tool in reducing the prevalence of this condition that seems to affect Sabahans more than others, said Prof Dr Zilfalil Alwi, who is with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Health Campus.

Thalassaemia is an inherited condition that causes haemoglobin levels to drop. Those with thalassaemia produce either no or too little haemoglobin, which is used by red blood cells to transport oxygen.

Affecting mainly those of Mediterranean, south Asian, South-East Asian, and Middle Eastern origins, thalassaemia can make one very anaemic and short of breath.

In newborns, thalassaemia is often detected during pregnancy or soon after birth, while blood tests can also be done at any age to check whether a person carries the faulty genes that cause the condition.

“The discovery of thalassaemia among Sabah’s newborns is higher compared to other states,” said Dr Zilfalil, who is a lecturer at USM’s Human Genome Centre.

However, he said that the incidence of those born in Sabah with thalassaemia from 2014 to 2018 is on the decline, following a government initiative to conduct mass screenings among secondary school students that also raised awareness of the condition, he said in his lecture at USM’s Health Campus on equity in the management of thalassaemia through medical genomics.

In November last year, USM was conferred the Unesco Chair in Human Genetics on Thalassaemia, which is the first chair in human genetics awarded by Unesco.

The chair focuses on human genetics, with particular reference to thalassaemia. The project is led by Dr Zilfalil, who gave a special lecture on Monday to mark the occasion.A key objective of the Unesco Chair on Thalassaemia is to promote knowledge and capacity-building in genetics among low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) by using thalassaemia as a model genetic disorder and to contribute to reducing the burden of the genetic disease.

The focus of this project is aligned with Sustainable Development Goal 3, which is to ensure health and promote well-being for all, regardless of age.

Thalassaemia is one of the most common genetic diseases in LMIC, and without proper treatment, a person can face many complications, which could lead to early death.Those with severe thalassaemia are prone to experience significant physical, mental and social distress.

“Countries like Cyprus and Singapore have managed to reduce the incidence of thalassaemia to the minimum through antenatal screening, public health programmes, and medical treatment.

“Malaysia has also started screening for thalassaemia among secondary school students aged 16 since 2016 to detect carriers of the thalassaemia genes.

“With the reduction in thalassaemia children born here, the nationwide screening programme can serve as a model for other countries fighting thalassaemia,” he added.

USM has partnered with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and the broader scientific community from 32 countries to set up the Global Globin Network (GGN) to combat thalassaemia by applying recent developments in genetics.

GGN is a platform for global collaboration in the sharing of knowledge, technical skills and capacity building to bridge the “genomic divide” between high-income countries and LMIC.

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