Friday, March 30, 2007

The Scourge of Autoimmune Disease

We just learned that the 13 year old daughter of some dear friends has been diagnosed with lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease, so we thought we'd say a little here about autoimmunity.

The term "autoimmune disease" encompasses a range of diseases and conditions in which the body's immune system essentially turns on itself, attacking the body's own tissues. Some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and scleroderma, are systemic, meaning the immune system attacks many different parts of the body, whereas others are organ-specific, in that they involve only one particular organ--for example, Addison's disease attacks the adrenal glands.

Lupus is a particularly pernicious disease because during flare-ups it can be debilitating, causing widespread joint pain, fatigue and muscle weakness, while it also can attack almost any organ in the body. Although sometimes fatal, most lupus cases can be treated with steroidal therapies and many lupus patients live mostly normal lives. Our friends' daughter's case was diagnosed early, which makes her prognosis, with treatment, quite good. Still, it's devastating news, all the more so for such a young person.

The Curmudgeon had never heard about autoimmune diseases before working on some legal matters, a number of years back, involving claims that a medical device had caused autoimmune reactions. We were shocked to learn how common these diseases are in Americans--affecting at least 3% of the population (some estimates are as high as 20%), with roughly three-quarters of cases occurring in women, who tend to have higher rates of autoimmunity than men. (Many of the particular autoimmune diseases are quite rare, but when they're all combined they are fairly common, and some, such as rheumatoid arthritis affect millions of Americans.)

Despite years of research, the mechanism that triggers autoimmunity is poorly understood and most autoimmune diseases have no cure. Some, such as scleroderma--a systemic disease that results in thickening of the skin and fibrous tissue in internal organs--have relatively high fatality rates.

Many cases of autoimmunity go undiagnosed because the symptoms sometimes masquerade as a type of low-level chronic illness, and because diagnostic tests--generally blood tests for certain "auto-antibodies" (i.e., antibodies to our own tissues)--are notoriously imprecise.

Despite the widespread suffering caused by autoimmune diseases, as well as an estimated 30,000-40,000 deaths a year, this scourge gets relatively little research funding from the federal government--tens of millions of dollars compared to the billions devoted to cancer, heart disease and major illnesses.

One organization that is trying to change that (and which the Curmudgeon has supported for a number of years) is the Autoimmune Diseases Association (previously, the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association), which lobbies Congress and the National Institutes for Health for increased funding, privately supports promising research, holds conferences on autoimmune disease and serves as a clearinghouse of information for sufferers of these diseases.

If you're interested in learning more, or helping out, visit their website at:


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