Sickle cell anemia is a prominent disease in the African American community, and unfortunately, it is not until a prominent figure such as Prodigy succumbs to the illness, that we become aware.

What a sobering experience it is to have someone pass away from an illness from which you, a close friend, or a family member suffer! Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, one-half of legendary hip hop group Mobb Deep, reportedly passed away from complications of sickle cell Tuesday. I admittedly am not a huge Mobb Deep fan. The only thing I knew about it was one of the members, Prodigy, suffered from sickle cell anemia and that I had a beef with a dead person (Tupac) for making fun of that, even if Prodigy, himself didn’t care. Like T-Boz and Larenz Tate, my interest in Prodigy was fueled by the fact that we shared this autoimmune disease.

Here’s some background information: Sickle cell disease is an autoimmune blood disease that is mostly prevalent in people of African descent. If the number of a specific protein of the red blood cells, hemoglobin, that carries oxygen throughout the body becomes too low, red blood cells can mutate from their normal, circular shape into half-moon shapes (sickles) and stick (clot) in joints or other small blood passageways in the body. When this happens, the patients can experience lethargy, extreme pain (called “pain crises”), or develop illnesses that are results of a lack of oxygen to affected parts of the body. Sickle cell is inherited, so people who have only received one gene for the disease are said to have “sickle cell trait” and are called “carriers.”

The difference between a sickle cell (left) and healthy red blood cells (right).

The difference between a sickle cell (left) and healthy red blood cells (right).

Although it is recessive and only about 100,000 Americans have sickle cell, it occurs most frequently within people of African descent in varying severities. It is probable that you encounter someone with the disease daily, or know someone who has the disease. While some people are asymptomatic, others may continually struggle with it throughout their lives. In the case of Prodigy, it is unclear exactly what happened to cause his death, but people who die from sickle cell often suffer from an acute episode of pain, acute chest syndrome, or stroke. However, the rate of sickle cell-related deaths is extremely low, nearing only 1% (and decreasing with new technology) by the early 2000s. Also, new developments in stem cell research have gotten rid of the disease in several patients altogether. Thus, there is no need to live in constant fear that a loved one will succumb to the disease, but there is a need to get proper screening to ensure you are aware of your status as a carrier, or that if you happen to be asymptomatic, you are taking care of yourself. Spreading sickle cell disease is possible, but sickle cell, just as any contractable disease, is preventable with screening and maintainable with proper awareness. Sickle cell isn’t scary if you are aware of it.

Watching celebrities with sickle cell has always been baffling and inspiring to me because I am so aware of how much a person with the disease has to do to care for his or herself. The long hours, smoking, drinking, dehydration, airplane rides, exercise, and even sex can trigger a pain crisis or other severe illness. Those are enough to do a healthy person in, but someone who needs to maintain adequate oxygen levels would reasonably have a more difficult time recovering. Prodigy, Tate, and T-Boz are important in our community not just because they are examples of overcoming obstacles, but also because they remind us that there is an obstacle, specific to our race, that we cannot forget about. Oftentimes, it seems as if we have “moved on” from causes that are “played out” or that we “should know about” by now. Sickle cell anemia cannot be one of those.