The famine may be a difficult period of Irish history we’d rather forget, but every time I get a blood test the potato-less nightmare floods my mind. Having recently been diagnosed with hereditary haemochromatiosis- a condition I can barely pronounce, much less understand- I have been directly linked with my unfortunate celtic ancestors.
Simply put, haemocromatosis means your blood produces too much iron, which can cause chronic fatigue and fatal organ damage- if left untreated. Trouble is, most people don’t know they have it because it is relatively symptomless.
For those of you who think the haemo-what-dya-ma-call doesn’t apply to them- allow me to be the bearer of bad news. Unfortunately, it is nicknamed the ‘celtic gene’ for a reason. We here in the west of Ireland have the highest incidence of haemocromatosis in the world. Yes, the entire world.
In Europe between one in 300/400 have the potential to develop iron overload. In Ireland, particularly in the west, one in five people are carriers of the gene and one in 83 are predisposed to develop iron overload.
Why has the west of Ireland been cursed with this affliction you may ask? After countless studies, it is widely believed that haeomochromatosis may not have originated as a bad thing- in fact it may have saved the lives of our ancestors. Turns out, it is very likely that the Famine and a very poor diet contributed to a mutation of genes in order to absorb extra iron.
Recent research conducted by Dr. Thomas P. Duffy of the Yale School of Medicine explored why certain people survived the Great Hunger, concluding that the answers probably lie in their gene pool.
According to his findings, “levels of an essential factor in iron delivery are reduced in malnourished individuals. A further contribution to a negative iron balance among the Irish was their heavy consumption of tea. Tea contains tannins that complex with iron in the gut and inhibit its absorption.”
Dr Duffy found that those without the gene would have died in disproportionately large numbers during the famine- since iron is one of the most critical elements within the body.
“The Great Famine with its life-destroying absence of adequate nutrition magnified the importance of possession of the HFE gene for hemochromatosis. A concentration of individuals with the gene would occur among the survivors.”
It is a bitter sweet revalation- thinking survival of the famine could have left me with dodgy blood. As of yet though, this widely accepted theory has not been definitively proven. Dr Duffy suggests that screening of famine immigrants in America and Australia would identify the gene and further the evidence to support it.
Meanwhile in Mayo, doctors regard the condition as very common, and something which should be tested for, if possessed by any relation.
Achill GP Dr Jerry Cowley says he’s on the look out for haemocromatosis all the time, and encourages people to follow it up with their families.
“Certain things like haemochromatosis are quite common in this neck of the woods and we need increased awareness of it. We often find tiredness and chronic fatigue are the main sign that someone might have the gene,” he said.
For me, a long road of blood tests lie ahead. Turns out my period is good for something- as menstruation usually balances out the iron levels. If my iron should overload, however, I will need to get my blood drained regularly. Sounds gruesome I know- but doctors just take the same amount as your bog standard blood donation, approximately 1 pint. Besides that, because I was diagnosed young I have a normal life expectancy, and the celtic gene of course- so I’ll survive.