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Reading summary 4: Health
How Autoimmune Diseases Sabotage the Body's Own Defenses
Many people are talking about a sickness called lupus, and awareness of other
autoimmune diseases is on the rise. Autoimmune diseases affect the immune system –
the body’s natural defense for fighting disease.
The immune system normally protects the body against foreign materials, such
as viruses and bacteria. Autoimmune diseases result from a failure of the body’s own
defenses against disease. The immune system loses its ability to tell the difference
between foreign materials and its own cells. As a result, the body starts attacking its
own organs and tissues.
The hands of a lupus
There are three kinds of lupus. Discoid lupus, which
affects only the skin, can be identified by red marks on the face
or neck. However, these marks on the skin can also be a sign
of another form of lupus called systemic lupus. Systemic lupus
can affect almost any organ or organ system in the body.
When people talk about lupus, they usually mean the systemic
form of the disease. A third kind of lupus is a side effect of
certain medications. Drug-induced lupus usually goes away
when a patient stops taking medicine.
High body temperature and pain in the elbows or knees
are common signs of lupus. Other signs are red marks on the skin, feelings of extreme
tiredness and lack of iron in the body. At different times, the effects of lupus can be
either mild or serious. The signs of the disease can come and go. This makes
identifying the disease difficult. There is no laboratory test to tell if someone has lupus.
Many people with lupus also suffer from depression. Lupus can also lead to other
health problems. Women with lupus are at greater risk of developing heart disease.
Between thirty and fifty percent of lupus patients will develop lupus-related kidney
disease, known as lupus nephritis.
There is currently no cure for lupus. Doctors have developed ways of treating
the disease based on the unique needs of each patient. A treatment could include a
combination of stress-reduction methods and drugs such as painkillers, steroids and
anti-malaria drugs. Supervised exercise training can also improve the quality of life for
lupus patients.
It has been four decades since the United States Food and Drug Administration
approved a drug especially for treating lupus. Organizations like the Lupus Foundation
of America are working to increase public understanding of the disease. Early
recognition of lupus and treatment can often prevent serious health problems. Lupus
can be life-threatening if left untreated. Yet, many patients can lead a normal and
healthy life if they follow their doctor’s advice.
Experts are not sure what causes most attacks of lupus.
For systemic lupus, genetics or environmental influences seem
to be involved. Lupus has been known to attack members of the
same family. However, the genes responsible have yet to be
identified. Many scientists believe infections may cause lupus.
So can extreme bodily or mental tension, commonly known as
stress. Two other suspected causes are antibiotic drugs and
hormones produced by the body.
In fact, hormones might explain why lupus affects women far more often then
men. The Lupus Foundation of America says ninety percent of the people with lupus
are women. However, persons of African American, American Indian or Asian ancestry
become infected more often than white women. Scientists do not know why women are
more at risk than men. They think it might have to do with female hormones like
estrogen. Another idea is that it could involve the foreign cells left in a woman’s body
after a pregnancy.
Lupus is not the only autoimmune disease. At least eighty other such diseases
have been identified in which the body attacks its own organs and cells. Some of these
diseases attack just one area of the body, like the skin, eyes or muscles, while others
affect an organ system or even the whole body.
The United States National Institutes of Health says autoimmune diseases
currently affect an estimated five to eight percent of the country’s population. That
represents between fourteen million and twenty-two million Americans.
The physical, emotional and financial cost of autoimmune diseases is huge.
Most of those affected are women. While people of all ages are affected, women who
are old enough to have children are especially at risk. Some autoimmune diseases, like
lupus and scleroderma, are more common in African Americans. Diseases such as
multiple sclerosis and type-one diabetes are more common among whites.
New drugs are being tested to help treat autoimmune diseases. Some drugs can
be a problem because they suppress the immune system. This means the body is less
able to defend itself against infections. As a result, the side effects of the drugs can be
as dangerous as the disease itself.
Newer drugs attempt to suppress only one small part of the immune system, not
all of it. For example, drugs like Enbrel and Remicade block tumor necrosis factor. This
is a protein that causes inflammation, a physical reaction to infection, injury or other
causes. These drugs have been useful in treating autoimmune diseases like
rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease. However, the drugs are very
costly. The drugs have also been found to increase the risk of cancer.
Scientists continue searching for other methods of treatment. Theoretically, stem
cells could be used to replace tissues damaged by disease. Stem cells have the ability
to grow other cells, such as heart, nerve or brain cells.
Medical experts also are working together to improve the way autoimmune
diseases are identified and treated. The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the USA brings
together experts to improve the study of autoimmune diseases. Government agencies
also are working to increase knowledge about these diseases. The United States
National Institutes of Health created an autoimmune disease research plan three years
Both private and government organizations are working to increase public
understanding of lupus and other autoimmune diseases. This can help individuals
better understand what to do should they develop a health problem. At the same time,
medical researchers continue working to help patients have a better quality of life.
Words: 1011; Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 10.7; Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 41.7
"How Autoimmune Diseases Sabotage the Body's Own Defenses." Science in the News. VOA News, 27 November
2006. 20 November 2006.
For an interview (transcript) & downloadable mp3 similar to this article, click on the link below or above.