Celtic curse in the blood
Haemochromatosis is a genetic disorder found in people of Celtic origin which causes them to absorb too much iron
AS A race, we have a tendency to fair skin and freckles. We are also supposed to possess a charming, friendly nature and a propensity for music and poetry. But our ancient ancestors have also passed on another trait – one that is not quite so welcome.
Known as the Celtic Curse, haemochromatosis is a genetic disorder seen mainly in people of Celtic origin which causes those affected by it to absorb excessive amounts of iron into the blood. If left untreated, this may lead to organ damage or even failure.
One in 83 people in Ireland has the condition, which is very prevalent on the west coast of the country.
Margaret Mullet, chairwoman of the Haemochromatosis Association of Ireland, says it is vital for people to be aware of the symptoms and, if diagnosed, begin treatment as soon as possible.
“Haemochromatosis is very widespread in Ireland, particularly in the west where people may have been intermarrying in the past,” she explains.
“It is a genetic disorder which can have detrimental effects, but if diagnosed early, a positive prognosis is very probable.”
Inishbofin island off the coast of Galway is one of the areas where an alarming number of cases have been detected and islander Francis O’Halloran has recently been diagnosed with the disorder.
“I have always thought of myself as being a fit and strong man. I never had to worry about pushing my boat out or doing any kind of manual work,” says the 51 year old.
“But about a year ago, I woke up with pains in my chest and a feeling of total exhaustion. I thought I might have had arthritis, so I went to see the doctor who happened to be on the island that day.”
Concerned about his symptoms, the doctor advised O’Halloran to take the boat over to Galway to get checked out in a hospital.
“When I got to hospital, I had an angiogram and a load of blood tests done. Everything came out clear and I was sent home again,” he recalls.
“But I still wasn’t feeling good and didn’t have an ounce of energy in me. I definitely wasn’t getting better.
“So I decided to get a second opinion from Brendan Daly, a friend of mine who is a doctor in Galway.
“It was a good job I did because he took three blood tests and immediately diagnosed haemochromatosis.”
Initially alarmed by the results, O’Halloran was soon reassured by his doctor that treatment was on hand and, providing he had regular blood removal and check-ups, he could regain some of the stamina he had in the past.
“I was very frightened when I first heard the news and couldn’t imagine how I could have gone from a healthy man to being shot down in mid-air,” he admits.
“But Dr Daly told me that everything was going to be okay. Hearing that was a boost of energy and I was ready to be told what to do next.
“My condition is the opposite of being anaemic, so the treatment involves reducing my iron levels on a regular basis. They do this by removing 600ml of blood from me once a fortnight.
“This dilutes the iron overload and, in time, the levels can revert to normal although I will always have to have this treatment done.
“I also have to watch what I eat and drink so I don’t consume much iron. It is a little bit of a pain to do, but the alternative is extreme exhaustion in the short term or a complete iron overload, which can result in heart disease and organ damage.”
It’s been a year since his diagnosis and O’Halloran’s iron levels are almost back to normal. He will never have the same vitality of his youth and will need monitoring for the rest of his life, but it’s a small price to pay for getting back on his feet.
“I will always have haemochromatosis and, although I am much better in the past few months than I have been for ages, I am constantly tired and frequently get episodes of zero power which lasts for about half an hour,” he says.
“I am unemployed right now, which is probably a good thing as I was good for nothing for the past year.
“But I am positive about the future with the great medical care I am getting and the love of my wife and family. There is a lot to look forward to.”
HAEMOCHROMATOSIS: THE FACTS
- Haemochromatosis is a genetic iron overload disorder.
- It is particularly prevalent among Irish and other Celtic people.
- The condition causes people to absorb excessive amounts of dietary iron which, over time, may lead to serious organ damage.
- Iron builds up very slowly, so symptoms may not appear until aged 30-40 years.
- Symptoms include chronic fatigue, joint pain, diabetes, enlarged liver, irregular heartbeat and loss of libido.
- Haemochromatosis affects the liver, heart, pancreas, endocrine glands and joints leading to impaired function and eventually disease or organ failure.
- Anyone genetically disposed to the condition or suffering from symptoms should visit their GP for a blood test.
LIVING WITH HAEMOCHROMATOSIS
Begin treatment as soon as possible and alert blood relatives of their need to be tested.
Maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet – reduce intake of red meat and offal.
Do not eat raw shellfish and cook well before eating as it could be contaminated with bacteria ( vibrio vulnificus) which can be fatal to people with iron overload.
Avoid foods fortified with iron, including some cereals and breads.
Dont take iron supplements.
Avoid supplements that contain large amounts of vitamin C as it increases iron absorption. However, do not avoid consuming fresh fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C.
Drink high-tannin tea with meals, as it inhibits iron absorption.
Avoid cooking with cast iron skillets or other iron vessels.
Check the labels of processed foods for their iron content.
Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and stop smoking.
Implement a healthy exercise regime.