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S Afr Med J. 1999 Sep;89(9):966-72.

Measurements of iron status and survival in African iron overload.

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Department of Medicine, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.



Dietary iron overload is common in southern Africa and there is a misconception that the condition is benign. Early descriptions of the condition relied on autopsy studies, and the use of indirect measurements of iron status to diagnose this form of iron overload has not been clarified.


The study involved 22 black subjects found to have iron overload on liver biopsy. Fourteen subjects presented to hospital with liver disease and were found to have iron overload on percutaneous liver biopsy. Eight subjects, drawn from a family study, underwent liver biopsy because of elevated serum ferritin concentrations suggestive of iron overload. Indirect measurements of iron status (transferrin saturation, serum ferritin) were performed on all subjects. Histological iron grade and hepatic iron concentration were used as direct measures of iron status.


There were no significant differences in either direct or indirect measurements of iron status between the two groups. In 75% of these subjects the hepatic iron concentration was greater than 350 micrograms/g dry weight, an extreme elevation associated with a high risk of fibrosis and cirrhosis. Serum ferritin was elevated in all subjects and the transferrin saturation was greater than 60% in 93% of the subjects. Hepatomegaly was present in 20 of the 22 cases and there was only a moderate derangement in liver enzymes except for a tenfold increase in the median gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase concentration. There was a strong correlation between serum ferritin and hepatic iron concentrations (r = 0.71, P = 0.006). After a median follow-up of 19 months, 6 (26%) of the subjects had died. The risk of mortality correlated significantly with both the hepatic iron concentration and the serum ferritin concentration.


Indirect measurements of iron status (serum ferritin concentration and transferrin saturation) are useful in the diagnosis of African dietary iron overload. When dietary iron overload becomes symptomatic it has a high mortality. Measures to prevent and treat this condition are needed.

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