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Summary

Hereditary haemochromatosis is the prototype disease for primary iron overload. The disorder is very common, especially amongst subjects of Northern European extraction. It is characterized by an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance, and most cases are homozygous for the C282Y mutation in the HFE gene. Haemochromatosis is now recognized to be a complex genetic disease with probable significant environmental and genetic modifying factors. The early diagnosis of individuals at risk for the development of haemochromatosis is important, because survival and morbidity are improved if phlebotomy therapy is instituted before the development of cirrhosis. The cost-effectiveness and utility of large-scale screening for haemochromatosis have been questioned given that many individuals with the homozygous C282Y mutation do not have iron overload or end-organ damage. However, the use of phenotypic tests, such as serum transferrin-iron saturation, for initial screening avoids the problem of the identification of non-expressing homozygotes. Liver biopsy remains important in management to determine the presence or absence of cirrhosis, particularly amongst patients with serum ferritin levels greater than 1000 ng/mL or elevated liver enzymes. Those with non-HFE haemochromatosis who cannot be identified on genotypic testing should have a liver biopsy to establish diagnosis. Patients with end-stage liver disease may develop liver failure or primary liver cancer, and liver transplantation may be required. Liver transplantation for haemochromatosis is associated with a poorer outcome compared with other indications because of infections and cardiac complications.