50:1, 9:1, 2:1 these are just some ratios of autoimmune disease disparities between women and men. The Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR) hosted the Capitol Hill briefing, The War Within: Women and Autoimmunity, on Tuesday, October 11 to address these concerns. The briefing featured two panelists who spoke about autoimmune diseases in women, and the efforts needed to advance the understanding and treatment of these often serious conditions.
Autoimmune disease occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own organs, cells and tissues. There are approximately 80-90 autoimmune diseases that affect 20-50 million Americans, many of which are debilitating. While autoimmune diseases affect both men and women, many diseases are more prevalent in women. Hashimoto's thyroiditis, for example, which impairs functioning of the thyroid, affects 50 times more women than it does men and systemic lupus affects nine times more women than men.
Both a patient and an advocate, Kathleen Ann Arnsten has been diagnosed with eight different autoimmune diseases and must take 30 medications daily in order to function. She describes her experiences with autoimmune diseases as "devastating," and warns that even though patients may appear healthy, pain is ravaging them within; we cannot be apathetic towards research for better treatments.
Due to the various symptoms of an autoimmune disease and the fluctuating severity of those symptoms, care is highly individualized according to the patient's needs. Often, a patient must try many different treatments before an effective one is found. Some autoimmune diseases, like lupus, are incurable and can be fatal. Additionally, there is a great shortage of treatments available, causing many patients to turn to expensive off-label drugs to manage their conditions. Arnsten stressed the need for further research and clinical trials surrounding autoimmune diseases, with the potential to discover and patent new treatments.
Panelist Annette Rothermel, PhD, Program Officer at the Autoimmunity and Mucosal Immunology Branch at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), spoke about NIAID and its ongoing autoimmunity research efforts. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Autoimmune Disease Coordinating Committee, chaired by NIAID and founded in 1998, promotes research of autoimmune diseases by NIH, federal agencies, advocacy groups, and private organizations. Current autoimmunity research funded by NIAID aims for greater understanding of the role of immune systems in initiating and maintaining autoimmune disease, improvement of experimental systems and diagnostics, and development of advanced therapies and prevention strategies for autoimmune conditions.
The fact that most patients suffer for five to 10 years from an autoimmune disease before receiving an accurate diagnosis supports the conclusion that the general public, and even healthcare professionals, remain largely unaware of autoimmune disease symptoms and the severity of such conditions. While the cure for autoimmune diseases may still be out of reach, Arnsten and Rothermel agree that large improvements can and must be made in diagnosis and treatment.
Source: Society for Women's Health Research