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The Disease that cries Wolf by Monika Guttman

Lupus-In which the bodies immune system attacks it's own cells-mimics many other illnesses, thwarting diagnosis. But once identified, new drugs and technologies have greatly improved the prognosis   


Several years ago, Helen Francisco was tired and achy all the time, and blamed her fatigue on a series of miscarriages. A hair stylist who worked out of her home, she gave up the more lucrative aspects of the job-highlights, permanents, hair coloring or any other work that involved chemicals-and began eating a macrobiotic diet to balance her system, hoping with relief from chemicals and no stress, she would be able to carry a pregnancy to term. Still, the fatigue would not go away.

Soon she realized a redness on her face was getting more pronounced. She went to a physician, who recognized the familiar "butterfly" pattern on her cheeks and nose. Francisco was one of the lucky ones: she was referred almost immediately to a rheumatologist, who ran a series of tests and diagnosed her with systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus.

Lucky, that is, in that her lupus was diagnosed fairly quickly. Called the "Great Imitator," lupus is often difficult to diagnose because it is a systemic disease that can attack the joints, skin, kidneys, nervous system, lungs, heart and gastrointestinal tract, mimicking many other illnesses. For many with the disease, diagnosis can take anywhere from three to ten years.

Not that Francisco felt particularly lucky. Being diagnosed with any autoimmune disease like lupus-where the body's immune system essentially attacks its own cells-can be devastating.

 80 to 90 percent of all lupus patients can expect to have a normal life span,.

The improving prognosis is partly due to the fact that lupus, which is Latin for "wolf" and so named because the common skin rashes on the face resemble the markings on a wolf, is getting more attention, thanks to such celebrities as Charles Kuralt and former White House dog Millie.

More significantly, progress is due to increased attention overall to autoimmune diseases, a broad category of conditions that involve the body's immune system actually mistaking its own cells for the enemy and turning an "immune response" on itself. Other autoimmune diseases include multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and diabetes mellitus (Type I diabetes) and dozens of lesser-known diagnoses with tongue-twisting names, like ankylosing spondylitis or antiphospholipid syndrome. While some autoimmune diseases are mild and only slightly irritating, others can be life-threatening, extremely painful or debilitating. In all, autoimmune diseases affect some four million people in the U.S. alone and cost billions of dollars in health care.

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