Health

Hit Netflix show Supacell is raising awareness of sickle cell anaemia


The creator of a hit Netflix show about a group of black south Londoners with superpowers triggered by sickle cell anaemia says he hopes its success can kickstart a discussion about the condition in the UK and remove the stigma associated with it.

Hit show Supacell is now at No 1 in Netflix’s global top 10, with more than 18m views in its first few weeks on the platform.

In the series, a group of south Londoners start to develop comic book powers – superhuman strength and speed, telekinesis, the ability to teleport and fly, and to have premonitions – while being tracked by Health & Unity, a shadowy organisation that offers to “help” those who are affected.

The show has been praised for subtly interspersing real-life issues that affect Black Britons: from the casual racism that Black females face on reality TV shows to bias in the health system. But the biggest real-life undercurrent in the fantastical world of Supacell is the inclusion of sickle cell anaemia in its storyline.

Its creator Rapman, AKA Andrew Onwubolu, the director behind Blue Story, wants it to become a launch pad for the condition – which affects 17,000 in the UK and can be deadly – to be better understood.

“Before Supacell, ask anyone about sickle cell and one out of five people know about it. It’s crazy how unknown it is, especially for a disease that affects so many people,” said Rapman.

“I wanted it to raise awareness and make people who’ve got sickle cell feel seen and heard. I’m getting messages from young people and parents about how they feel so seen and before they wouldn’t talk about it with their friends and now they’re interested.”

Sickle cell disease changes the shape of blood cells into crescents or sickles, which can trigger severely painful episodes, resulting in coma and even death. Those who suffer from it have a life expectancy which can be 20 to 30 years shorter than in the general population, and it mostly affects those of African heritage.

The world of Supacell might be sci-fi but in countries like Nigeria and Zambia, where the disease is prevalent, it is changing the way people date, work and plan their futures.

In 2023, there was a call for more black blood donors to come forward (sickle cell sufferers can require blood transfusions), while those with the condition have long complained about not having their requests for pain medication taken seriously and having to wait in A&E for hours before getting relief.

But recently in the UK there have been optimistic signs when it comes to the treatment of the disorder.

The sickle cell unit based at Manchester Royal Infirmary opened earlier this year, the first unit of its kind in the country to offer specialised care for sufferers in the north-west, while a “life-changing” drug called Voxelotor has become available on the NHS to around a quarter of sickle cell patients in the UK.

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John James, CEO of the Sickle Cell Society, welcomed the success of Supacell and said his organisation has seen around a 20% increase in inquiries.

“Sickle cell gets very little attention,” he said. “People who know very little about the condition will think, ‘Wow, this is a different way to portray this condition.’”

James also praised the fact Supacell featured a mixed heritage character with sickle cell, which showed the “diversity” of the communities that the illness affects.

“There are many thousands of people who live with the sickle cell trait and they don’t know it,” he said. “That’s because previously people kept it on the down-low, there was this stigma attached to talking about it within families.”

James added that the superhero element of Supacell didn’t feel out of place and chimed with some people’s experience of the disease.

“Sometimes, because of the challenges associated with this condition, they have to summon a superpower just to manage the pain and the complications,” he said. “They have to summon something from within that is almost a superpower.”



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