Aug. 22, 2001 -- Two years ago, actress Kellie Martin's
19-year-old sister Heather suddenly began to suffer from fatigue, an odd skin
rash, and a slew of unexplainable health problems. Her symptoms stumped doctor
after doctor. The doctors diagnosed her with one illness, then a different one,
then yet another, as Heather's friends and family watched the formerly healthy
teen become gravely ill.
The doctors couldn't reach a consensus on Heather's ailment.
"They would stand out in the hall and argue about what the best way to
treat her was," says Martin. "In the meantime, Heather was getting
weaker and sicker. It was infuriating." Finally a doctor diagnosed Heather
with systemic lupus erythematosus, also called lupus.
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With lupus, like other autoimmune illnesses, the patient's
immune system goes into overdrive and mistakenly attacks the body it is
designed to protect. In Heather's case, her body was killing her own kidneys
and other vital organs, mistaking them for foreign objects.
Though Heather's disease might seem unusual, 50 million
Americans -- 75% of them women -- suffer from autoimmune disorders, according
to Virginia Ladd, president and founder of the American Autoimmune Related
Diseases Association Inc., or AARDA. Because of the threat these illnesses pose
to women's health worldwide, the AARDA is currently working with both the
United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and the World Health
Organization to have autoimmune disorders declared a major women's health
Misunderstood and Misdiagnosed
Autoimmune diseases are illnesses of the unknown -- the body
attacks itself, the illnesses are often repeatedly misdiagnosed, and effective
treatments are few, even after doctors do figure out what's wrong. The 80 or so
recognized autoimmune illnesses range from those that are commonly known, like
diabetes, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, to the
unfamiliar, including Hashimoto's thyroiditis -- a chronic inflammation of the
thyroid gland -- and pemphigus vulgaris, a skin disease where blisters form on
the mouth and scalp.
"Women usually have to see five or six doctors before they
find someone who can tell them what they have," Ladd says. But once
diagnosed, no one doctor treats the disease. Instead, various specialists treat
the illness symptom by symptom. Ladd hopes that soon a specialist called an
"autoimmunologist" will emerge to treat the scattered group of
autoimmune diseases as a whole.