There are over a hundred known autoimmune diseases and fifty million Americans have at least one. The problem is, we think of each autoimmune separately but it’d be better if we thought of them together.
You may think of them as individual diseases (see full list here). Physicians and researchers treat them as individual diseases, too — separated based on which organ they affect. But the reality is that each of these diseases has a common genetics and a common pathophysiology. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly recognizes the body’s own proteins as foreign and produces antibodies to attack healthy cells and tissues.
Not knowing that they are connected has repercussions. It means that patients may not understand that having one autoimmune disease means they (and their family members) are at increased risk of getting another. It means physicians may not be taught to think about autoimmune underlying causes when their patients present with confounding symptoms. It means that research may be stunted by a lack of collaboration across specialties. And it means we as a society miss out on the sheer power of 50 million voices all clamoring for research funding for the hows and whys of autoimmune disease.
Its really a PR problem. In contrast, “cancer” is an umbrella term for many individual malignancies, some common and some rare, affecting different organs, presenting with different symptoms and having different prognoses. In terms of public awareness, research and systems of care, approaching “cancer” as one encompassing category has been a success story. We all know what “cancer” is. When cancer develops, primary care doctors are trained in diagnosing it and refer the patient to a specialist trained in cancer care, not care of a particular organ. And, although it affects 1/5th of the number of people that are affected by autoimmune disease, cancer attracts ten times the research funding.
We need a paradigm shift. Compared to other (less common) medical issues such as cancer and heart disease, we know so little about autoimmune illnesses. A simple shift from thinking about autoimmune diseases individually to approaching them in terms of what they have in common might be the most effective path towards improving awareness, understanding and outcomes.
Resource: The American Autoimmune Related Disease Association website (www.aarda.org), which has lots of information for a basic understanding of autoimmune diseases. Learn more about there great work here: