This was in the Tulsa World - Dec 24, 1998 by Lauri Winslow


**Iron overload can be the underlying culprit behind health problems. by  Laurie Winslow Staff Writer

Up until about four years ago, when he was 49, Richard Wallace had never even heard of hemochromatosis.
His body had not yet begun to show signs of iron overload, but a blood test during a routine physical uncovered the excess iron lurking within. "Come to find out it's probably something that was not diagnosed in my family.
My mother came from a family of 11. Of (my) seven uncles, almost everyone died  from some kind of liver cancer, heart attacks, throat cancer, things like that," said Wallace. "Looking back it looks like most of them had the problem, but it was never diagnosed."
Iron overload disease is a potentially fatal but easily treatable hereditary  disorder in which the body absorbs too much iron. If undetected, iron overload can be the underlying culprit behind a host of health problems, including cirrhosis, liver cancer, diabetes, impotence and sterility, arthritis, chronic fatigue, heart failure and ultimately premature death. About 1.5 million people in the United States are affected by iron overload disease, which is primarily caused by hereditary hemochromatosis.
"We have storage iron in the body, and we need it. Iron is an absolutely necessary ingredient to our living. We think about it in terms of being one of the building blocks for making the stuff in red cells, or hemoglobin, for
carrying oxygen," said Dr. Dan Plunke, seior associat dean for clinical affairs  with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciene Center in Tulsa.
With hemochromatosis, however, too much iron is absorbed by the body.  While most people absorb about 10 percent to 15 percent of the iron in food, those with hemochromatosis reportedly absorb 75 percent or more of the iron in their food.
Excessive iron deposits in the skin can cause people to look bronze-skinned or  sunburned.  "It's probably under-diagnosed because like many genetic conditions, there is a spectrum of severity." said Plunket. "The not-very-severe cases might be missed unless the physician has the awareness to look for it."
Many people who have died from other chronic diseases may have actually suffered  from iron overload. Hemochromatosis is passed genetically from parents to children, thereby causing some to believe that iron overload, not heart disease or diabetes, may run in the family, according to literature.
A series of blood tests can help screen for the disease.  An estimated one out of every eight people is a single gene-carrier of the  hemochromatosis gene, while one in 200 people have the double gene.
The best way to get rid of excess iron and to stop, and in some cases reverse, damage to the body is through phlebotomy, or blood-letting. Initially, blood is removed weekly or biweekly until iron levels drop, then
three or four times a year to help keep iron levels in check.
Leslie Johnston, a local veterinarian, began a personal crusade of sorts to educate people about the disorder after he was diagnosed with hemochromatosis more that 20 years ago. He has blood removed as much as six to eight times a year.
Johnston has written about the topic, and some of his papers have been posted on  the World Wide Web, including a site for the American Hemochromatosis Society.
"I had gout symptoms and diabetic symptoms. I was tired, fatigued, sleepy, no  'get up and go,'" said Johnston.
He also exhibited arthritis symptoms. Initially, Johnston thought he had gout, which is marked by painful inflammation of the joints due to abnormally high uric acid levels in the blood.
A blood test and subsequent liver biopsy, however, confirmed he had excess iron  in his liver. With treatment, Johnston, who is 70, no longer experiences many of the disease's attendant health problems, except for some arthritis, he said.

The disease is five to 10 times more frequently seen in men than women, said Dr.  Joe Nicholson III, and osteopathic physician in family practice with Omni Medical Group. Iron overload, however, also affects both pre- and post-menopausal women. Nearly 70 percent of patients will develop the first signs of symptoms between
ages 40 and 60. The disease is rarely clinically evident before age 20, Nicholson added.
The principal causes of death if left untreated include heart failure in 30 percent of patients, liver failure in 25 percent or liver cancer in 30 percent, Nicholson said.
"The importance of early screening and early therapy can't be stressed too  strongly," said Nicholson. "Even with good therapy and the removal of the excess of iron, some patients are still stuck with the low libido and painful joints."
For more information about hemochromatosis, visit Web sites for the American Hemochromatosis Society ( or the Iron Overload Diseases Association (
Lauri Winslow can be reached at 918-5818466