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The Trials of Keeping Track

By Stephen Pinock

Autoimmune diseases attack millions of people around the world, but no one is quite sure how many people suffer or what these diseases take out of the world economy.

For three years after Yvonne Norton gave birth to her second son, she had a host of mysterious symptoms that left her family doctor baffled. Time and time again, she sought his advice, to no avail. In desperation, she even visited a psychiatrist who also had no answers, other than to say, "Whatever is wrong with you, it isn't in your head."

Autoimmune Diseases: Gender Percentage

Then, one day in 1975, she landed in a hospital with complete heart failure. For three days she lay unconscious, coming around to learn that seven pints of fluid had been drained from her lungs and that she was being treated with high doses of cortisone. Six months later, the steroids were wreaking havoc on her body, without improving her symptoms. "At one point, my son got into a fight at school with a kid who called me a swollen monkey," she recalls. "I thought, 'this is serious'."

Norton, who lives near Wolverhampton in central England, then traveled down to London for an appointment with a specialist at the Hammersmith Hospital. After a month of inpatient care, she was discharged with her diagnosis written on a piece of paper: systemic lupus erythematosus. "I carried it around for weeks, until I finally managed to get my tongue around it," Norton recalls. She quickly learned that her condition was an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the very body that made it. Over the years, she grew increasingly familiar with these diseases, particularly since she developed three more: Sjögren syndrome, Raynaud syndrome, and irritable-bowel syndrome.

Norton is far from alone. "Progress in Autoimmune Diseases Research," a 2004 report from the National Institutes of Health's Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Committee (ADCC), details more than 80 chronic and often disabling diseases recognized at least in part as autoimmune. These conditions can affect any part of the body, often causing a spectrum of symptoms that make straightforward diagnosis a challenge. They include a handful of relatively common illnesses, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis (MS), plus dozens of rare conditions.

"We know that these diseases occur predominantly in women in their childbearing years, just when they have the biggest family responsibilities."
-Noel Rose

 

 

Despite diverse manifestations, many autoimmune diseases share common genetic and molecular origins, explains Virginia Ladd, founder of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. The result is that many patients, such as Yvonne Norton, have more than one autoimmune disorder. In some cases, multiple autoimmune diseases cluster within the same family.



 
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