In the United States and around the world, sickle cell anemia (SCA) is much more common among Black people. But people of any race or ethnicity can inherit this disease. Here’s what we know so far.

SCA is an inheritable disease that affects your red blood cells. If you have SCA, your genes code for an altered form of hemoglobin, a protein in your red blood cells. This causes the red blood cells to take on a crescent or sickle shape and prevents them from moving through your body as easily as they should.

More than 66% of people with SCA in the world live in Africa. And according to the American Red Cross, African Americans make up 98% of SCA cases in the United States. For these reasons, many people might think of SCA as a disease that affects only Black people.

But anyone can get SCA or carry the trait, regardless of their racial or ethnic group. Still, it’s quite rare in white people in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 1 in every 333 white newborns carries the sickle cell trait (SCT), with far fewer being born with SCA.

There’s not much data on how common SCA is in white people across the United States. A 2019 study involving Michigan births during a 17-year period found that about 2.5% of newborns with SCA were white. But the CDC notes that rates can vary considerably from state to state.

Data from the CDC suggest that SCT is also much less common in white people:

Race or ethnicitySCT cases per 1,000 births
Asian or Pacific Islander2.2

The 2019 Michigan study also found that there was only 1 white baby with SCA for every 156 white babies with SCT.

Learn more about how SCT differs from SCA.

SCA is a relatively rare disease, but it’s more common in people whose ancestors come from parts of the world where malaria is or was frequent. That’s because SCT may help protect against malaria. These regions include:

  • sub-Saharan and Northeast Africa
  • Spanish-speaking regions of the Americas
  • the Caribbean
  • Eastern Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Greece, and Turkey
  • the Middle East
  • South Asia

The World Health Organization says that about 120 million people worldwide have SCA. According to the CDC, about 100,000 of the people affected live in the United States.

SCA is an autosomal recessive trait. That means both biological parents must have either the trait or the disease to pass it on to their child.

You have two copies of each gene — one from each parent — called alleles. If both your parents pass on the mutated allele to you, you will have SCA.

If you only receive the mutated allele from one parent, you will carry the trait but won’t have the disease. But that means you can still pass it on to the next generation.

Learn more about how sickle cell anemia is inherited.

A simple blood test can let you know if you carry the trait for any hemoglobin disorders, including SCA. This test has been part of newborn screening across the United States since the 1970s.

Still, about 16% of U.S. adults with SCT don’t know they have it, according to 2019 research. The CDC recommends that adults of childbearing age undergo screening if they do not know their status, as it’s important to know if they can pass it down to their child.

Symptoms of sickle cell anemia

Symptoms of SCA start to appear once a baby is about 6 months old. Symptoms in children and adults include:

Was this helpful?

SCA has the same effect on people, regardless of race. It can cause complications such as:

Although the effects of the disease may be the same, Black people often have worse outcomes from SCA. This is often due to the effects of systemic racism and racial biases in the healthcare system.

Currently, the only available cure for SCA is a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. But doctors seldom recommend this procedure as the risks often outweigh the benefits.

But the outlook for U.S. children with SCA has improved significantly over the last 40 years. According to 2015 research, more than 95% of children with SCA now reach 18 years old.

Learn more about the long-term outlook for SCA.

People of all racial and ethnic groups can inherit SCA, including white people. Although it is rare among white people in the United States, it’s more common in those whose ancestors come from certain parts of the world.

SCA is most common in people whose ancestors come from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and parts of the Americas. But it’s also more common in people with ancestry from countries around the Mediterranean, like Israel, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

If you identify as white, it’s important not to assume you can’t have SCT. In fact, a lot of U.S. adults have SCT and don’t know it. Consider undergoing screening, so you know your status.