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Safe Ferritin levels:

Ferritin levels are the most commonly measured body iron storage measurements. While it may not be the most ideal measure of iron level in the body, it has continued to be a very useful tool because of the relative ease of measuring it.

It has been a regular practice to use changing patterns of Ferritin levels as an estimated measure of the body iron status. It is important to note that one single measurement of Ferritin level, in itself, is less useful than trends or changes over a period of time. I believe that target Ferritin levels for patients with beta Thalassaemia major should be based on the benefit the target value is expected to bring. That is; the positive effect on the prognosis in terms of reduction in risk of complications and improvement in survival.

  • Ferritin levels above 2000 micrograms/Litre for long periods of time are known to increase the risk of iron-induced multi-organ damage.
  • Ferritin levels between a 1000 and 2000 micrograms/Litre are better. Although less then that from higher values, there still is an increased risk of organ damage if Ferritin levels remain above a 1000 micrograms/Litre for a long period of time.
  • Ferritin levels below a 1000 are, based on current data, better targets because the risk of organ damage are so significantly reduced that it is very close to no additional risk.
  • The high end of normal Ferritin level for the general population is around 150-300 micrograms/Litre dependending on age and gender. It is quite possible to achieve this level. There are several people who have been able to safely reduce their Ferritin levels to this level and maintain it over long periods of time. However, currently there is a bit of concern whether achieving such low Ferritin levels is of significant extra benefit than having a level of less than a 1000 micrograms/Litre. There have been reports of increasing incidence of Desferal side effects in individual who have very low Ferritin levels. The side effects in such patients could perhaps be reduced by using lower doses.

My current practice is to encourage patients with beta Thalassaemia major to first try to get their Ferritin levels to below 2000 micrograms/Litre. Those who can achieve this will be encouraged to lower it further to less than a 1000 micrograms/Litre. Once that is achieved; have it reduced and maintained around 500 micrograms/Litre.

I think it is very important to communicate this entire plan to the patient at the very beginning, so that they can work towards a target and monitor their own progress.

Having said that, from a prognosis point of view maintaining Ferritin levels anywhere below a 1000 micrograms/Litre is considered a good target. The 500 micrograms/Litre is not universally accepted as the best Ferritin level.

A note to readers:

Reductions in Ferritin levels can take time. It requires a lot of effort from the patient as well as their families. It can be achieved with Desferal safely. I would like to remind readers that it is absolutely vital that you discuss with your treating doctor regarding setting targets and planning for lowering your Ferritin levels, especially with respect to your Desferal dosage. No change to treatment should be brought about without consulting your doctor.

Desferal injection techniques:

I have had the experience of helping a fair number of patients with Beta Thalassaemia major in using Desferal injections by different techniques.

  • Intravenous injections: I am personally very uncomfortable with patients using Desferal intravenously (direct injection into the blood via a vein) even when given as an infusion. The risk of sudden high doses entering the blood stream and causing major acute side effects is my worst fear with this technique. Desferal maybe used intravenously under close monitoring at a hospital setting. This is because in a hospital it would be easier to deal with potential problems. I personally think that IV Desferal use is too intrusive, invasive, relatively unsafe and potentially troublesome. It is also a lot more challenging for patients to acquire the skills necessary to self administer Desferal IV. I personally don’t recommend this method.
  • Intravenous via a porta-cath: I have seen some patients who have had subcutaneously implanted catheter ports on their body into which they self inject (as a slow infusion) their Desferal doses. I consider this to be virtually the same as intravenous injection. It is definitely a lot easier in this case to gain IV access for injection, but it is associated with potential side effects as for the IV techniques in addition to complications related to having the catheter itself. I personally don’t recommend this technique either. Immediate side effects are common with both these techniques and are not very well tolerated by most patients who have tried it.
  • Subcutaneous via pump: This is till date; the most widely used, most widely accepted and most widely studied injection technique. The Desferal dose is prepared in a syringe which is then “loaded” into the pump. The mechanical pump then slowly (over 8-12 hours) injects the medication via a needle inserted just beneath the skin. This is probably the safest way to inject Desferal. Most patients prefer to “wear” the pump at night allowing it to inject the medication when they sleep. The biggest hurdles in this technique are the incidences of local injection site side-effects (swelling, pain, redness, itching…etc) and the need for about 10 hours on average for the injection. Some people, more than others, have serious injection site problems that hinder regular use of Desferal. Even after considering all this, pump is still perhaps the safest, easiest, most effective and most widely accepted injection technique for Desferal use. I generally recommend this technique more than any other (exceptions: read below).
  • Subcutaneous as short infusions: The medication is prepared in a syringe. It is attached to tubing at the end of which is a needle ( a butterfly needle). The needle is inserted into the space just below the skin and medication injected slowly over 20-30 minutes. Although originally developed as a 10 minute “bolus” injection, I support the slower injection over 20-30 minutes and prefer to call it “short infusion”. The total daily dose is divided into a morning and an evening dose. This is increasingly becoming popular with patients who weren’t able to spare “the 10 or so hours” needed for the pump. They have one injection before going to work and one before going to bed. It is effective, generally safe (but less so than the pump) and less time consuming. The local injection site problems are similar to the pump technique. I would recommend this technique for anyone who is unable to use pump.
  • Intra muscular injection: Painful and unsafe. I have met people who were on this injection technique in the late 70s (the then commonly used technique). I don’t recommend this technique. I believe this technique to be only of historical significance.

Having written all that, I would like to say that it really up to the patient to choose the most appropriate method of Desferal use for himself after consulting with his doctor. I would certainly recommend one or more techniques depending on circumstances, but it is ultimately the choice of the patient which technique he or she wishes to use. There are advantages and disadvantages of each of these techniques and individualized plans must be the right way to go.

I urge everyone to discuss with their doctors before making any changes to their medications. There are ways in which we as clinicians help minimize and control side effects or the severity of it. In case of a medication like Desferal, which I consider to be an essential life-saving medication for patients with Beta Thalassaemia major, it is important to do everything possible to help patients optimize their regular use.

It is not easy for the patients to adhere to this difficult treatment. But when it is an essential treatment, we must find ways and means to persevere.