African iron overload (Bantu siderosis) is a rare disease which is characterized by having too much iron in the body. The human body is not able to get rid of excess iron; iron levels in the body are regulated by how much is absorbed from the diet. This disorder is primarily seen in the sub-Saharan African populations and is attributed to the high amount of iron in their diet, specifically from their domestic beer which is heavy in iron due to the techniques used to prepare the beer. The symptoms are largely dependent on how much iron accumulates and where it accumulates. Excess iron is typically stored in the liver, spleen and bone marrow. Symptoms often include chronic liver disease (cirrhosis), decreased ability to fight infections and an increased risk for liver cancer. Other less common findings may include heart disease, high blood pressure, fluid accumulation in abdominal area, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
African iron overload is most common in the rural areas of central and southern Africa where it is thought to affect up to 10% of the population and affects men more often than women. Because it seems to run in families, there are likely genetic factors involved, however, a diet high in iron seems to be the most influential risk factor. Iron overload is best diagnosed with a variety of blood tests to assess the total body iron. A liver biopsy detects the iron concentration in the liver and MRIs can measure the amount of iron accumulation through magnetism in the liver, heart, and pituitary gland. The amount of hemoglobin is important when considering treatment options. If the patient has an ample blood supply, a physician can perform a phlebotomy (drawing blood). When the hemoglobin levels are too low, iron removal drugs can be used. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with African iron overload, talk with your doctor or specialist about the most current treatment options.