Mediterranean Thalassemia

Before I was allowed to wed my Greek man, we both had to undergo a very traumatic experience at a Greek hospital in Cyprus. VERY TRAUMATIC. So traumatic that I had to lie down for the rest of the day.

We both had to have a blood test.

The blood test was to check if we had something called Thalassemia.

Before I go on I should state that I am not a doctor (which really disappointed a lot of my Greek relatives) so the information below is from internet sources.

First used in 1932, the term Thalassemia (thal-uh-SEE-me-uh) derives from the Greek Thalassa  (θάλασσα), sea, and haema (αἷμα), blood. It is an inherited blood disorder characterized by less hemoglobin and fewer red blood cells in your body than normal. Several types of thalassemia exist, including alpha-thalassemia, beta-thalassemia intermedia, Cooley’s anemia and Mediterranean anemia.

Hemoglobin is the substance in your red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen. The low hemoglobin and fewer red blood cells of thalassemia may cause anemia, leaving you fatigued.

Mild thalassemia may not need treatment, but more serious variations may need regular blood transfusions. The type of thalassemia you have depends on the number of gene mutations you inherit from your parents and which part of the hemoglobin molecule is affected by the mutations.

Thalassemia occurs most often in people of Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Asian and African ancestry. A quasi-mandated premarital beta-thalassemia carrier screening programme began in Cyprus in the early 1980s. Cyprus has one of the highest carrier rates in the world, with an estimated carrier rate of one in seven. Among Greek Cypriots, premarital screening is mandated by the Cypriot Orthodox Church. Couples wanting to get married by the Church are required to be screened and issued with a certificate.

Carrier couples still have the right to get married if they wish, but are highly discouraged from having children in order to try and decrease the incidence of thalassemia.

While I am not Cypriot (my father is from Greece, not Cyprus and my mother is English/European – they did not have to have the test before they married in Greece 30 years ago), I still had to have the test due to my Greek genes.

Being fully Cypriot (although born and raised in the UK), my Greek man felt sure that he carried the gene. One relative even declared that she knew she had thalassemia because she ‘felt like it’. In fact, most of my Greek man’s relatives were confident that he would be a carrier of the gene.

Turns out, he was not. (There seemed to be slight disappointment all round when we were both found to be clean – Greeks love a good drama).

In all seriousness, thalassemia can be a life-changing condition for those who carry the more severe gene, but treatments are being developed and prevention is the key. So don’t get too stressed about that blood test (as I did!) – everything is in the hands of the Gods.

Originally posted on Ekaterina’s Greek Expectations

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