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Silent sufferers

Published:Monday | February 28, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Patrina Pink, Gleaner Writer

The Greeks worshipped Priapus, the god of fertility and the male genitals. In medical terminology, 'priapism' is a term used to denote an erection lasting for more than four hours but, unlike the god it is named after, it has no association with sex.

While some men may view an erection lasting for hours as a marker of virility, many sickle-cell carriers, some of whom are boys as young as three years old, know the silent horror of this debilitating condition.

Yesterday, the Urological Society of Jamaica, an organisation mandated to explore solutions to the many diseases and disorders of the urinary tract as well as the male reproductive system, devoted much of its annual symposium to exploring priapism in sickle-cell sufferers and young boys in Jamaica and the United States.

"This isn't just an adult problem, it's a paediatric problem as well," said Arthur Burnett, professor of urology at Johns Hopkins University, who was a presenter at the symposium.

Before Burnett, Dr Colin Abdel presented a paper on paediatric priapism in which he disclosed that there have been 25 local surgeries to correct priapism in boys between ages three and 10 years for the period 2005-2010. Of those surgeries, one young man died from complications with a chest condition.

Abdel reminded parents to pay close attention to prolonged erections in their boys. He said one key distinction between priapism and acceptable early-morning erections was that after the child has urinated in the mornings, the 'normal' erection will subside. In priapism, bladder or orgasmic relief will have no effect. It can also be very painful and the penis or clitoris (priapism is rare in females) will become extremely discoloured.

"Twenty-nine per cent of the patients suffer from erectile dysfunction or become unable to perform sexual intercourse satisfactorily. In addition to that, there is a psychosocial effect, a third of the boys reported priapism as the worst disorder of their (sickle cell) condition," Burnett said.

The impact, he noted, was often disastrous on male sickle-cell sufferers. Sicklers are especially prone to priapism because the sickle shape of their red blood cells blocks the vessels of the blood, cutting off oxygen supplies. The deoxygenated blood then damages the muscles of the penis, often leading to reduced sexual capabilities.

Burnett called for more support of scientific work dealing with sickle cell and said he had been trying to start up a sickle-cell research centre in Jamaica, but had been facing bureaucratic roadblocks.

"The male sexual health in the sickle-cell population is neglected, from a patient's perspective their sexual function is very important to them and we need to respect that," he said.

The professor said that 42 per cent of sickle-cell patients suffer from priapism; Burnett said that more research was needed in Jamaica as well as other parts of the world.