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For Rare Blood Disorder, Pumping Iron Is the Cure
Date:8/25/2008

Doctors say bloodletting is the best available option for people with hemochromatosis

MONDAY, Aug. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Bloodletting is often dismissed as a primitive form of medicine, in which early doctors attempted to rid the body of bad humors by draining the life-sustaining fluid.

But there's at least one disease left where bloodletting is still the preferred means of treatment.

Hemochromatosis is an inherited disease in which the body becomes overloaded with iron. When that occurs, the iron builds up in organs and tissues, causing slow damage from within that prompts a multitude of symptoms and illnesses.

"Until people get sick, they don't usually know it's there," said Gerald Koenig, director of the Iron Disorders Institute. "We think it's the most underdiagnosed disease in the country."

There are about one million people in the United States with a genetic predisposition for contracting hemochromatosis, Koenig said. "About 150,000 can expect to get sick, some very much so," he said.

Hereditary hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders in the United States, most often affecting Caucasians of northern European descent, although other ethnic groups are also at risk, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Iron is an important micronutrient for the human body and is found in many foods, mainly in red meat and iron-fortified breads and cereals. In the body, iron becomes part of hemoglobin, a molecule in the blood that transports oxygen from the lungs to all body tissues.

"Most people maintain just the right amount of iron in their bodies," Koenig said. "It varies by a gram or two between people."

But hemochromatosis causes the body to absorb too much iron from food, with the metal collecting over a period of years in such organs as the heart, liver and pancreas. Depending on how each person's body deals with the excess iron, the
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