Irrepressible hunger that often leads to overeating and consequently an early onset of childhood obesity — this is the key characteristic of Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS), a genetic disorder caused by a defect in chromosome number 15.
PWS, which can affect the physical and mental development of a child, is uncommon, occurring in one out of 10,000 to 30,000 people worldwide.
“PWS is characterised by severe hypotonia (decreased muscle tone) and feeding difficulties in early infancy, followed by excessive eating and gradual development of morbid obesity into late infancy or early childhood. Patients with PWS often have delayed motor milestones and language development,” said Dr Nikki Fong Wen Yan, Consultant, Genetics Service, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH). Other issues caused by the syndrome include behavioural issues, such as temper tantrums, stubbornness, compulsiveness and difficulty with changes in routines. The main health hazards of PWS are obesity and its resultant complications, which include sleep apnoea, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
Often, PWS does not present with symptoms during a pregnancy. However, some expectant mothers may show abnormal antenatal findings such as decreased foetal movements, intrauterine growth retardation and excessive amniotic fluid in the amniotic sac (polyhydramnios). If there is suspicion for PWS, genetic tests can be done on foetal cells to confirm it.
“Inheritance risks for PWS vary and depend on the genetic change involved,” said Dr Fong. As such, recommendations for genetic testing of parents with an affected child depend on the genetic change that led to PWS in the child.
PWS can be managed effectively using a multidisciplinary approach. The care team usually comprises a geneticist, endocrinologist, respiratory physician and developmental paediatrician. Allied Health Professionals such as a dietitian, speech and language therapist, physiotherapist and occupational therapist may also be involved. “Many patients benefit from the use of growth hormone therapy and will need long-term follow-up for management of their feeding, growth and development. They also need to be assessed for complications such as short stature, obesity, scoliosis and obstructive sleep apnoea,” she said.
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With clinical features varying by age, strategies for management would thus differ with the child’s age, added Dr Fong. For example, during infancy and early childhood, patients with PWS have hypotonia and poor sucking reflex, often leading to failure to thrive. As such, they may require enteral tube feeding with regular speech therapy and a dietitian’s support for feeding. Patients with PWS often also have delayed development,thus needing early-intervention support. In late childhood, they develop hyperphagia (extreme hunger), which requires careful nutritional support with a well-balanced, lowcalorie diet and regular exercise. This is vital in preventing obesity and related problems.
As with any health condition, adequate family support is essential when it comes to caring for patients with PWS, as they will need regular follow-ups to manage their medical and developmental needs. Being a lifelong condition, the financial cost of the syndrome can be considerable, with a high risk of caregiver fatigue. Therefore, Dr Fong emphasised the importance of caring for the patient and family as a whole, supporting not only the patient’s needs but the caregivers’ as well.
However, it is often a lonely journey for the patients and their caregivers. Dr Fong attributed this to the rarity of the disease and its accompanying lack of awareness in Singapore. “If there is increased awareness, then hopefully people will take time to find out more about the condition and learn about the struggles that these patients and their families face. For the healthcare team caring for the patient and family, the challenge is in ensuring regular and easy access for all patients with PWS to medical care and therapies. With good support, therapy and medical care, the complications for patients with PWS can be minimised, allowing them to lead fulfilling lives.”
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