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.

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