Objectives: To explore early experiences of sickle cell disorder (SCD) in families with a young affected child, and the way these experiences influence relations within families. To consider ways in which stigma could be counteracted in health and research programmes in sub Saharan Africa.
Design: A qualitative study was conducted in a rural area of coastal Kenya including in-depth interviews with 13 families affected by SCD and 12 staff of a local biomedical research progamme. Purposive selection aimed to maximize diversity in socioeconomic and educational status, religion, severity of illness burden and religion amongst families and draw on relevant experience for staffs. Interviews were recorded, transcribed and analysed using the constant comparative method for family interviews and a thematic framework approach for staff data.
Results: Low initial recognition of SCD and its cause were associated with lay practices of surveillance within affected families, contributing to stigmatisation that occurred independently of genetic knowledge. Blame was often placed on mothers, including a risk of blame for misaligned paternity. Mothers are often particularly affected by SCD through the loss of independent livelihoods and their limited options in coping with this chronic condition.
Conclusions: Mothers of children with SCD were particularly vulnerable to stigmatisation within families, with underlying structural influences that suggest these findings may apply to other similar settings in Africa, and have relevance for other genetic conditions. The potential, nature and form of stigmatisation point to the role of effective communication and SCD management in addressing for blame and discriminative effects of having a child with SCD. The findings highlight the importance of broader social programmes targeting underlying gender and economic inequalities.