Anaemia

Anaemia

Hands holding tube of blood
Anaemia is a lack of oxygen-carrying red blood cells or haemoglobin, which can cause short- and long-term health consequences.

Our researchers are working to reduce anaemia, and to improve the health of people around the world, particularly women and children.

Mother and child participating in clinical study
A mother and baby participating in a WEHI-led study
of iron supplements to prevent anaemia in Bangladesh

Anaemia is a common condition both in Australia and around the world, affecting over 1.5 billion people worldwide. It is particularly prevalent in certain population groups: in Australia around 12 per cent of women, eight per cent of pre-school-aged children, and 20 per cent of people over 85 years are anaemic.

Worldwide, anaemia affects 42 per cent of children less than 5 years of age and 40 per cent of pregnant women. Iron deficiency is a leading cause of anaemia, but it can also be caused by other serious health conditions.

Our anaemia research

WEHI’s anaemia research spans from laboratory studies to international clinical trials. WEHI is the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Anaemia Detection and Control, with our researchers advising the WHO on the best approaches to diagnose and treat anaemia.

Our anaemia research includes:
  • studies to understand the best approaches to prevent iron deficiency anaemia, particularly in mothers and children in low income countries
  • investigating the molecules that control red blood cell production and iron levels in the body
  • studying diseases such as malaria that are a significant cause of anaemia, and are most serious in anaemic people.

What is anaemia?

Molecules
Haemoglobin molecules (red) bound to oxygen (blue)
From WEHI.TV animation Haemoglobin and
Sickle Cell Anaemia

A person with anaemia has too few oxygen-carrying red blood cells, or an abnormally low level of the oxygen-carrying protein haemoglobin in their blood. This reduces their blood’s ability to carry oxygen around the body.

Anaemia can have many short- and long-term consequences. People who are anaemic often experience fatigue, and may experience heart problems and an increased susceptibility to infections. Anaemia in pregnant women or young children increases their susceptibility to pregnancy-associated complications, including prematurity and low birth weight, and can cause long-term developmental problems for the child.

Causes of anaemia

In Australia and around the world, iron deficiency is a major cause of anaemia. This is often due to a lack of iron in the diet, but can also be a sign of other conditions that prevent iron absorption in the gut, such as coeliac disease or bowel cancer. Anaemia can also be caused by faulty regulation of iron levels, which can occur because of inflammatory conditions.

Pregnant women and young children have particularly high requirements for iron, and are at higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia.

Some forms of anaemia, such as sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia, are caused by inherited genetic changes. Anaemia can also be caused by problems with blood cell production, including by damage to blood stem cells that occurs during cancer treatments.

How is anaemia treated?

Woman receiving iron supplement
A pregnant woman in Malawi receiving iron supplements
to prevent anaemia, as part of a WEHI-led study

When a person is diagnosed with anaemia, the underlying cause should be understood and addressed – for example, a person with coeliac disease may need treatment for this condition, which may improve their anaemia.

Severe cases of anaemia can be managed in the short-term through blood transfusions. However, this does not address the underlying cause of the anaemia.

Iron-deficiency anaemia can be managed by providing extra iron, either as a tablet or powder, or as an intravenous infusion.

Our researchers are investigating the best ways to deliver iron to combat deficiency, particularly for women and children living in low-income countries.

PhD student Dr Andrew Baldi is part of a team of WEHI researchers investigating the impact of iron supplements on childhood development in low-income countries.

 

Support for people with anaemia

Our researchers are not able to provide specific medical advice to individuals. If you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with anaemia, please contact a health professional such as a general practitioner or health clinic.

Researchers: 

Professor Alan Cowman

Alan Cowman standing in a laboratory
Professor
Alan
Cowman
Laboratory Head; Deputy Director, Science Strategy
Super Content: 
Two researchers smiling at the camera

Institute researchers have launched one of the largest international efforts to prevent and treat maternal anaemia in developing countries.

The study will also investigate the impacts of iron deficiency on the developing infant brain.

Haemoglobin molecules in red blood cells

Animation explaining how DNA changes lead to the blood disease sickle cell anaemia