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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

α-thalassaemia

Cornelis L Harteveld1 and Douglas R Higgs2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Human and Clinical Genetics, Leiden University Medical Center, Einthovenweg 20, 2333ZC Leiden, The Netherlands

2 Medical Research Council Molecular Haematology Unit, Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, The John Radcliffe Hospital, Headington, Oxford, OX3 9DS, UK

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Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases 2010, 5:13  doi:10.1186/1750-1172-5-13

Published: 28 May 2010

Abstract

Alpha-thalassaemia is inherited as an autosomal recessive disorder characterised by a microcytic hypochromic anaemia, and a clinical phenotype varying from almost asymptomatic to a lethal haemolytic anaemia.

It is probably the most common monogenic gene disorder in the world and is especially frequent in Mediterranean countries, South-East Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in the Indian subcontinent. During the last few decades the incidence of alpha thalassaemia in North-European countries and Northern America has increased because of demographic changes. Compound heterozygotes and some homozygotes have a moderate to severe form of alpha thalassaemia called HbH disease. Hb Bart's hydrops foetalis is a lethal form in which no alpha-globin is synthesized. Alpha thalassaemia most frequently results from deletion of one or both alpha genes from the chromosome and can be classified according to its genotype/phenotype correlation. The normal complement of four functional alpha-globin genes may be decreased by 1, 2, 3 or all 4 copies of the genes, explaining the clinical variation and increasing severity of the disease. All affected individuals have a variable degree of anaemia (low Hb), reduced mean corpuscular haemoglobin (MCH/pg), reduced mean corpuscular volume (MCV/fl) and a normal/slightly reduced level of HbA2. Molecular analysis is usually required to confirm the haematological observations (especially in silent alpha-thalassaemia and alpha-thalassaemia trait). The predominant features in HbH disease are anaemia with variable amounts of HbH (0.8-40%). The type of mutation influences the clinical severity of HbH disease. The distinguishing features of the haemoglobin Bart's hydrops foetalis syndrome are the presence of Hb Bart's and the total absence of HbF. The mode of transmission of alpha thalassaemia is autosomal recessive. Genetic counselling is offered to couples at risk for HbH disease or haemoglobin Bart's Hydrops Foetalis Syndrome. Carriers of alpha+- or alpha0-thalassaemia alleles generally do not need treatment. HbH patients may require intermittent transfusion therapy especially during intercurrent illness. Most pregnancies in which the foetus is known to have the haemoglobin Bart's hydrops foetalis syndrome are terminated due to the increased risk of both maternal and foetal morbidity.