The healthy human body is equipped with a powerful set of tools for resisting the onslaught of invading microorganisms (such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites). Unfortunately, this set of tools, known as the immune system, sometimes goes awry and attacks the body itself. These misdirected immune responses are referred to as autoimmunity, which can be demonstrated by the presence of autoantibodies.
Autoimmune diseases are a major threat to the health of all Americans. At least ten millions Americans suffer from the more than eighty illnesses caused by autoimmunity. They are a special threat to women; about 75% of the patients are women. Autoimmune diseases are among the ten leading causes of death among women in all age groups up to 65. The bar graph shows the prevalence of the top 10 autoimmune diseases in the United States in 1996 (from Jacobson DL et al. Clin Immunol Immunopathol, 84: 223-243, 1997).
The broad spectrum of autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases can strike any part of the body, and thus symptoms vary widely and diagnosis and treatment are often difficult. The broad spectrum of autoimmune diseases includes multiple sclerosis and the severe type 1 diabetes mellitus. Some autoimmune diseases such as lupus and pemphigus can be life threatening unless properly diagnosed and treated. Chromic autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis cripple the patient and also create heavy burdens on patients’ families. Some types of uveitis may cause blindness. Diseases such as scleroderma require skillful, lifelong treatment. Still other autoimmune diseases, including Graves’ disease and chronic thyroiditis, can be successfully treated if correctly diagnosed, but they are frequently missed because of their subtle onset.
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