Posted: September 20, 2023

Dr. Cheng and Students in Front of a building at the University of Makeni
Dr. Xuanhong Cheng I-FMD Associate director and her students Jake Feuerstein, Hamsa Javagal, Norman Zvenyika, and Chibugo Okeke traveled to Sierra Leone over the summer in order to determine areas in which education on sickle cell disease (SCD) can be improved. 

SicklED is a Global Social Impact Fellowship program at Lehigh University that strives to develop low-cost, effective, and rapid tests for SCD and improve awareness and education of the disease. SCD is an inherited blood disorder in which red blood cells form with an abnormal, crescent shape. These cells can stick to each other and block capillaries, causing tissue damage throughout the body. Over 300 thousand babies are born with SCD every year, of which more than 230 thousand are born in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 50% of those infected die before the age of 5. Sierra Leone is especially affected by SCD, with 1% of the population being affected by it. 

In 2023, the team uncovered gaps within the Sierra Leonian healthcare system regarding SCD awareness and education. They found that Primary Health Units—smaller healthcare practices within communities—were critical to spreading information about SCD and caring for those infected. To help with education, the team worked with Sesay Joseph Saidu and the University of Makeni, Amelia Gabba and the Sickle Cell Society, the Masanga Hospital Sierra Leone, and the Sankoh Humanitarian Advocacy for Sickle Cell Disease to gather cultural information and plan strategic partnerships. Interviewing 50 people, including university students, patients, doctors, and nurses allowed for a better understanding of the cultural nuances of SCD in Sierra Leone, ensuring that the information would be more relevant and accessible to the general public. 

SicklED has previously done work to develop low-cost test strips for diagnosing SCD, making the test much more accessible to low- and medium-income countries and facilitating early screening.