There are more than 80 serious chronic illnesses involving almost every human organ system that are collectively referred to as autoimmune disease. While differing vastly in symptoms, all of them share the same underlying problem wherein the body's immune system attacks the very organs it was designed to protect. Autoimmune diseases are not contagious and are not related to AIDS, nor are they a type of cancer.
Of the fifty million Americans affected by one or more autoimmune disease, 75% are women. In particular, they affect women of working age and during their childbearing years. No one knows why autoimmune diseases target females. Hormones are a plausible explanation, but the link between estrogen and disease is not clear.
Some autoimmune diseases occur more frequently in certain minority populations. For example, lupusis more common in African-American women than in Caucasian women of European ancestry.Rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma affect a higher percentage of residents in some Native American communities than in the general U.S. population. These diseases are characterized by their elusive and unpredictable nature, and many are difficult to diagnose and treat.
While the outward appearance and functioning of the patient may be "normal", their quality of life is actually affected considerably. Certain diseases such as psoriasis can develop in different related individuals, and family members may even develop different autoimmune diseases caused by the same inherited and shared set of abnormal genes. For example, one first cousin may have lupus, another may have dermatomyositis, and one of their mothers may have rheumatoid arthritis. Many of the diseases that fall under this definition are not familiar to the average person. For example, Sjogren's Syndrome, a curious ailment that deprives the body of vital moisture, is one of the most prevalent autoimmune disorders, striking as many as 4 million Americans, nine out of ten of them being female.Current research is being led by scientists searching for ways to prevent and treat autoimmune disease by studying disease pathogenesis and investigating new ways to modify the immune system. A current goal in caring for patients with autoimmune diseases is to find treatments that produce remissions with fewer side effects.
Actions, Information & Opportunities to Help
There are many websites -- both comprehensive and single-issue -- dedicated to informing and analyzing issues related to autoimmune diseases. Also listed below are resources that offer help, theoretical sociological works, cultural studies, and multiple published news articles and campaign information pieces.
- American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA)
- The Immune System - The Nobel Foundation
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI)
- International Patient Organization for Patients with Primary Immunodeficiencies
- National Women's Health Resource Center
- Autoimmune Diseases Online
- National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- Rheumatoid Arthritis Online
- Early Onset (Type I) Diabetes Mellitus Online
- National Psoriasis Foundation
- Scleroderma Foundation
- Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases (including Graves') Online
- Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation, Inc.
- Lupus Foundation of America