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Best Pract Res Clin Haematol. 2002 Jun;15(2):315-28.

Hereditary haemochromatosis: a realistic approach to prevention of iron overload disease in the population.

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  • 1Department of Medical History and Ethics, Box 357120, University of Washington, 1959 NE Pacific, Room A204, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


Iron overload in body tissues can cause complications such as cirrhosis, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, hypogonadism and arthritis. In populations of northern European descent, most iron overload is due to hereditary haemochromatosis (HHC), a genetic condition that causes increased iron absorption. HHC can be treated or prevented by regular phlebotomy treatments. Some experts have called for population screening for HHC, so that early phlebotomy treatment can be initiated. Two screening tests are available: measurement of the serum iron transferrin saturation (Tf%) and genetic testing for HFE mutations. However, both methods have low positive predictive values. Current data suggest that most people at risk are unlikely to develop clinical symptoms and that the population prevalence of clinical complications of HHC is low, arguing against population screening. Two other prevention strategies are available. (1) Health provider education, to heighten awareness of HHC as an explanation for symptoms and signs seen in early iron overload including unexplained fatigue, joint pain, palpitations, abdominal pain, elevated liver function tests, hepatomegaly and elevated serum ferritin. (2) Family-based testing after a diagnosis of HHC, to ensure that relatives are evaluated for evidence of iron overload. More research is also needed to identify the factors that increase risk for disease in persons with excess iron uptake, to determine whether moderate iron overload is a health risk and to evaluate the causes of iron overload other than HHC.

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