An Irish View of the Celtic Curse: Hereditary Hemochromatosis

by Stephen Cobb on July 3, 2010

Over at the very informative website of the Iron Disorders Institute there was a link to a story about hemochromatosis in an Irish newspaper. Since hemochromatosis is known as the Celtic Curse–on account of its relatively high rate of occurrence in persons of Celtic ancestry–I thought this article would be an interesting perspective on my wife’s condition. I also realized it could be a story that you would have missed if you just searched the web for hemochromatosis. That’s because the article spells hemochromatosis as haemochromatosis, which is sometimes the case outside of America.

Irish coinHow Irish is the Celtic Curse? Across Europe as a whole the chance of someone experiencing iron overload is one in 400; in Ireland, it’s almost five times higher at one in 83. And one in five people in Ireland carry the gene that can lead to this condition. Of course, the problem is not confined to the Emerald Isle. With so many people having emigrated from Ireland to North America over the centuries it shows up pretty widely here as well.

The article is a good introduction to the condition with enough detail to give you a clear picture of the implications without getting too technical. It’s also an interesting non-American perspective. What it does not explore in much depth is the distinction between treatment of iron overload and treatment of organs damaged by iron overload.

In other words, it is relatively easy to reduce iron levels through blood donation, not so easy to cure the damage to liver, pancreas, heart, joints, and various parts of the endocrine system. Indeed, some of that damage, due to failure to diagnose hemochromatosis at an early stage, can be permanent and leave a person–as in my wife’s case–with a pretty miserable quality of life. That’s why there’s a great need to increase awareness of the Celtic Curse in the general population and in the medical community.

Which brings me back to the Iron Disorders Insitute. It is an institution worthy of support. My wife recently completed a detailed study the Institute is doing on the experiences of hemochromatosis sufferers. My guess is that it will reveal a shocking lack of knowledge about the Celtic Curse in the American medical community, and a dire lack of treatment for all its effects.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason O'Hare January 3, 2011 at 4:24 pm

I agree that american doctors are not actively testing patients for this discorder. I left the US to work in Vienna for a year and it was only there, that an Austrian doctor determined my condition following what is a rouitne ferratin blood test. At 34, I was very lucky that there was no permanent organ damage. My levels were ~75o with a normal level being <30. According to my US doctor, who also said I was fortunate to have had this test performed in Europe, said organ damage can occur at around 1000 levels. I was likely only 5 years away from damage to organs like my heart and liver. Get tested for iron overload in you are a male with any Northern European decent and especially if Irish. The good news is that the blood letting is the perfect and simple cure. Infact, my levels are <20 for the last 3 years and I only need to donate a unit 3-4 times a year to maintain. I may end up healthier than most as my iron stores in my organs is now less than most "normal" people now. Get checked before your 30 if possible….Women essentially get fresh blood monthly following menstruatuion (till ~50y/o) This is why they often dont have complications and may be why women live 7-8 years longer than men in general…

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Dennis Marr August 5, 2013 at 8:09 am

I had thought that Rosacea was the “Irish Curse.”

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Rosaleen February 24, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Researching for my son . My mother had it & my uncle died from it at age 47. My other children tested positive for carrying the gene. Yes we are irish 100 percent on my mothers side & scotch Irish on my dad’s side of the family.

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gail ross April 7, 2014 at 1:52 am

Hi I have just been diagnosed with heamachromatosis , I was getting worried as my arthritis was getting worse and I have blurring in my left eye, and slight tremor in my left hand, It was only by chance my doctor took blood test and came back very high in iron , so they did more test , and it came back very high in genetic ferritins. I then had a scan on my liver ,I have got iron in my liver but they think they have caught it in time, I have my first transfustion 22nd april 2014, hopefully they have caught it in time. I think they should test everyone for overload of iron, it would save a lot of time ,money ,stress and lives. if detected early.

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Stephen Cobb May 26, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Thank you for sharing. We agree, the right thing to do is screen everyone as part of their annual physical.

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