Aplastic anemia occurs mostly in children and young adults. It’s a rare disease, affecting an estimated 500-1,000 people in the U.S. each year.
It occurs when your marrow no longer produces the hematopoietic stem cells you need to provide your body with enough red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. In most cases, this happens because your own immune system begins to attack your tissues and organs.
Aplastic anemia can be caused by viruses — for example, those that cause HIV, hepatitis or Epstein-Barr infection; certain medications, including some antibiotics or drugs for treating rheumatoid arthritis; exposure to toxic chemicals, such as benzene or those found in pesticides; radiation therapy; chemotherapy; autoimmune disorders; or pregnancy. However, in most cases, the cause of the disease cannot be determined.
As the disease develops, you may experience such symptoms as:
- Shortness of breath
- Bruising and bleeding after minor injuries or bumps
- Uncontrolled bleeding, especially from the nose or gums
- Infection and fever
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
Aplastic anemia may be treated with
- Stem cell or bone marrow transplant to replace the defective hematopoietic stem cells with healthy new cells from a donor. This is called an allogeneic transplant. This is the only treatment that may cure the disease. If you’re eligible for a transplant, you’ll be in good hands at Roswell Park’s Transplant & Cellular Therapy Center.
- Because aplastic anemia happens when your immune system begins attacking your organs and tissues, medications to suppress your immune system may help keep the damage in check.
- Transfusions of red blood cells or platelets to ease symptoms, including fatigue. Transfusions cannot cure aplastic anemia.
- Other medications, such as Danocrine® (danazol) — a hormone that stimulates blood cell production — and Promacta® (eltrombopag), which helps the body produce more platelets.
Elizabeth Griffiths, MD, a member of Roswell Park’s Leukemia team, plays a national role in setting the standard of care for the treatment of MDS and anemia as a member of the MDS and Anemia Guidelines Panel of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). The NCCN Guidelines specify the best ways of preventing, detecting and treating different types of cancer, and are the most widely used standards in the United States.