03 February 2011
By Sumati Yengkhom
"If both the mother and father are carriers, there is a 25% of the mother giving birth to a thalassaemic baby. In such cases, the expecting mother can now go for prenatal screening and decide to abort the foetus if the test comes positive for thalassaemia. The best time for mothers to go for the screening is between 10 and 12 weeks of pregnancy," said Dr Prantar Chakrabarty of the Institute of Haematology and Transfusion Medicine (IHTM) attached to Calcutta Medical College & Hospital. NRS Medical College and Hospital is also conducing the tests.
The time for undergoing the test is crucial, say doctors. If the foetus turns out thalassaemic, the abortion has to be done within 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The screening started as a research project under the Indian Council for Medical Research. Now, the state government plans to take it ahead to reach out to a wider population and reduce thalassaemia in Bengal, which has the highest incidence of the genetic disease.
"I remember a young mother who had lost her first two babies a few months after birth. When she underwent the prenatal thalassaemia detection during the third pregnancy, it was found that the foetus was thalassaemic. She voluntarily aborted," said Dr Swarnalata Roy, medical officer at the haematology institute.
As of now, hospitals are approaching pregnant women to go for the screening. If a woman is found to be a carrier, the husband’s thalassaemia status is checked. If he, too, is a carrier, she is asked to go through the prenatal screening. "It is done free of cost. Any expecting mother can walk into our thalassaemia outdoor clinic every Tuesday," said NRS haematology assistant professor Dr Rajib De. Here, 1,149 women have undergone the thalassaemia test, of which 144 were found to be carriers. After testing their husbands, doctors narrowed it down to 15 cases of which two foetuses had to be aborted.
About 2,500 thalassaemic children are born in Bengal every year. According to Thalassaemia International Federation, Bengal accounts for nearly a third of the thalassaemia affected children in India. "Apart from the high cost of treatment –numerous blood transfusions, iron chelation, bone marrow transplant –the survival of the child is also at risk. Therefore, preventing the birth of a thalassaemic child is always a wise option," said Dr Moloy Ghosh, who heads the NRS haematology department. NRS is already expanding its molecular laboratory and hiring more experts to carry out the screening on a bigger scale.