To investigate the possible causes of an increased incidence of red cell microcytosis in Asian children, 204 Gujarati Asian children and 88 European children attending community infant welfare clinics underwent initial screening tests for determination of red cell indices. Seventy six Asian (37%) and nine European (12%) children had microcytic red cells (mean corpuscular volume less than 74 fl). Further investigation showed that 16 of the Asian children (21%) with microcytosis had thalassaemia trait (eight were heterozygous for alpha thalassaemia and eight for beta thalassaemia), and 50 (66%) had suspected iron deficiency (confirmed by a response to oral iron in 41 cases): the remaining 'microcytic' children were aged less than 2 years, when mean corpuscular volume between 70 and 74 fl may be normal. Increased values for serum total iron binding capacity were more sensitive in detecting iron deficiency than reduced serum ferritin concentrations. Enthusiastic screening for microcytic anaemia in young children may mean that a substantial minority with thalassaemia genes are given unnecessary iron supplements. The response to a short course of oral iron should therefore be carefully monitored, and the possibility of thalassaemia trait as well as non-compliance with treatment should be reconsidered in all those in whom there is little or no response.
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