Thalassemia has long been identified as a major health burden in Sri Lanka, but years of civil war has arrested the medical profession's ability to properly treat the condition. In the mid-nineties, a single thalassemia transfusion unit existed in the country. It was the physician in this unit who first invited Dr. Weatherall to help assess the hundreds of thalassemia patients this clinic was treating.
For nearly fifteen years, Drs Weatherall and Olivieri have helped Sri Lankan pediatricians diagnose and treat some of the 400+ thalassemia patients seen at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital. The Hemoglobal team has visited thalassemia clinics from Anuradapura to Badulla, provided DNA diagnosis for more than 700 patients, and has worked to educate doctors around the country about the clinical management of thalassemia. Hemoglobal was formally registered as a charity in 2004 to provide direct aid from international donors in the form of medical supplies and equipment.
Since Dr. Weatherall's arrival to the country, he has been working to raise money to build a hospital in Kurunegala. In June 2003, The new Kurunegala Hospital Thalassemia Unit was opened. The unit hosts a laboratory for blood sample analysis, a library of materials for doctors and patients, a hall for patient meetings and education sessions, and separate floors for pediatric and adolescent patient care.
This building is an outward sign of the motivation and determination of Sri Lankan physicians to promote thalassemia care and management and the start of an effort, which we hope will continue for decades in an extension of collaboration and friendship between Canada and Sri Lanka.
Clinical care for thalassemia patients worldwide has benefited from the research program which developed in this clinic. A number of papers have been published due to joint efforts of Sri Lankan, UK, and Canadian expertise. A 5-year comprehensive analysis has been done of the natural history of E Beta thalassemia. In the past, this condition has been treated in variable ways all over the world due to lack of understanding about how it works.
Many initiatives to improve the quality of life for Sri Lankan thalassemia patients have been pursued by Drs. Olivieri and Weatherall inside and outside of the laboratory. Although the oldest thalassemia major patient in the Kurunegala clinic is only 19 years of age at this time, due to the past absence of pumps to deliver the required medicine, a program to provide pumps is now providing safe and effective chelation to a growing number of patients on the island.