DECEMBER 1, 2020 – The Army has started testing recruits for sickle cell trait, or SCT, to identify at-risk Soldiers, as the service plans to screen all Soldiers within a year, according to a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command medical officer.
Earlier this month, the screening push kicked off to both give Army leaders an idea of how SCT has impacted the ranks, and to help Soldiers combat the lifelong ailment, said Maj. Sean Donohue, command surgeon at TRADOC’s Center for Initial Military Training.
“On the enlisted side, recruits [at basic combat training] are now tested as part of their initial screening exam,” Donohue said. The SCT tests are grouped in “with a variety of other blood samples as part of initial processing.”
Since Nov. 2, roughly 2% of recruits have been diagnosed with the blood disorder, he said, a number on par with the national average.
Having SCT is not a deal-breaker for military service, or any military occupational specialty, Donohue stressed. Instead, the diagnosis is the first step in giving Soldiers the care and support they need.
If a recruit’s bloodwork is marked for carrying SCT, the next step would be meeting with a health care provider, he said. From there, they would receive additional counseling to educate them on the condition.
By discovering SCT early on, it could help Army officials better distinguish “the difference between someone who may look like they have a heat-related injury from someone who has [SCT],” he said.
Along with testing, TRADOC officials are producing preventative health training materials.
“We’ve been doing this at our Drill Sergeant Academy, in particular, and educating them on what exertional collapse related to sickle cell looks like,” Donohue said.
Starting this fiscal year, identifying SCT symptoms will be part of the Army’s heat-related illness prevention training that recruits receive when they enter the force. In addition, the testing phase will extend beyond basic training.
“This is an Army-wide operation,” Donohue said. “As Soldiers do their annual health assessment, if they don’t have a [SCT] test on their health record they will [receive] one.”
SCT is an inherited gene mutation, passed down from one parent. In most cases, individuals with SCT do not show symptoms associated with sickle cell disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although SCT affects all races and ethnicities, its largest impact is on the African-American community, where one in 10 individuals are identified with SCT, Donohue said. To put that in perspective, according to the CDC, the Hispanic community is roughly one in 180, and in the Caucasian community it’s around one in 600.
“It’s still important to remember that although there are higher rates in certain ethnic populations, anyone can have the trait,” he said.
The testing comes in the wake of multiple SCT-related military deaths, most notably during fitness tests. In some cases, complications were rooted in extreme exercise caused by physical excursion, he said.
Complications associated with SCT also include low oxygen levels, elevated atmospheric pressure, and dehydration, he said. Symptoms may include fatigue, extreme thirst, headache, confusion, and dizziness.
By understanding and identifying complications early, Donohue believes individuals with SCT will be best equipped to decipher between it and a heat stroke.
As researchers continue to learn more about SCT, the Army will “continue to be proactive and educate the force on what it is and how to respond to it,” he said.
By Thomas Brading, Army News Service