BY JELANI GRANT
Sickle Cell Association of Ontario celebrated their 35th anniversary, while honouring world-renowned sickle cell researcher Dr. Graham Serjeant, at the Novotel Hotel in North York.
Hosting the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario Oscars and 35th Anniversary celebration and fundraiser were award-winning comedian and Senorita Productions founder Maliaka Bryce and 2016 Miss Caribbean Canada Queen Jahail Darby. Entertainment included twelve-year old singer Venus Brown, who sang the national anthem for the night, and Juno Award winner KOREXION; both carriers of the sickle cell disease.
JD&E Travel & Tourism, Grace Canada, Scarborough Town Centre, and award-winning artist Joan Butterfield provided raffle and auction prizes.
Born in Bristol, England but hailing from Jamaica as his adopted homeland, Dr. Serjeant has helped diagnose thousands of newborns with the disease. He was appointed director of the Medical Research Council Laboratories in the sickle cell research unit in 1974 and between 1972 and 1981, was instrumental in the screening of 100,000 babies at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital. In 1986, the Sickle Cell Trust was formed in Jamaica as a local registered charity, fundraising for the creation of a sickle cell-dedicated clinic. He became chairman of the Sickle Cell Trust in 1999, but Serjeant’s work continued in both Canada and Jamaica. Currently working on the Manchester Project, which began in 2007, Serjeant and his team began school education and student screening coupled with newborn screening in the Manchester Parish of Jamaica. The optional and free testing has yielded significant results. In its first two years, more than 4,500 students were screened and over 691 abnormal hemoglobin types were detected. “If two parents both have the sickle cell trait…in each pregnancy there is a 1 in 4 chance that the child will inherit the sickle cell gene”, said Serjeant.
Also in attendance was SCAO founder Lillie Johnson, known for being a tremendous contribution to the implication of sickle cell screening for newborns in Ontario. Born in 1922, Johnson was one of nine children and the first daughter of her parents. After arriving in Canada in 1960, following three and a half years training to become a nurse in Edinburgh, Scotland despite being the only black person in her program, she furthered her nursing education while working full-time in the health care sector, a career which led to her being the first black Director of Public Health in the Leeds-Grenville and Lanark District. Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO) is Ontario’s oldest organization dedicated to serving the sickle cell community. Established by Johnson in 1981, SCAO continues to be the leading voice in Ontario for community-based awareness, advocacy, education, research, and support for individuals, families and communities affected by sickle cell disease.
Since retiring in 1989, Lillie has devoted her volunteer efforts to the twin causes of education and raising awareness of Sickle Cell Disease. Johnson was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2011 for her work with the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) defines sickle cell disease as a group of inherited red blood cell disorders, leaving the patient with a very weak immune system and more vulnerable to infections. The disease is determined when abnormal hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body, is detected. Though not contagious, the disease is passed by genes from parents to their children. When someone who has SCD inherits two abnormal hemoglobin genes, one from each parent, they are at risk of having a form of SCD. In all forms of SCD, at least one of the two abnormal genes causes a person’s body to make hemoglobin S. When a person has two hemoglobin S genes, Hemoglobin SS, the disease is called sickle cell anemia. This is the most common and often most severe kind of SCD.
Though the SCAO has been researching and testing patients for more than three decades and founder Johnson has retired, the developments to reduce sickle cell disease continue. Specialists like Dr. Serjeant expect to eradicate the disease in the next few decades with more adult and newborn testing.