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Lupus in a nutshell

Here is a summary of what is known (and what is not known) about lupus in 10 points:

1. What is lupus? Lupus is a disease in which the immune system becomes over-active. (Some have dubbed it the opposite of AIDS). This overactive immune system ends up producing too many antibodies, and potentially clogging up or damaging the delicate organs of the body (rather like a car using too rich mixture of petrol or gasoline).

2. Who gets lupus? Most patients are young women, the peak age group being 15-50. Throughout the world the female: male ratio is 9:1.

3. How common is lupus? Approximately 1 in 1,000 women, though some estimates put the figure nearer 1 in 800. Thus, lupus is more common, for example, than multiple sclerosis or leukaemia. The good news is that it is potentially treatable.

4. Which countries are affected? Lupus affects people from every country in the world. There have been reports that it may be more common in certain ethnic groups such as Afro-Caribbean’s and in the Chinese.

5. What causes lupus? Nobody knows what kicks off the overactive immune system. Suspects include sunlight (UV light), hormones, stress, certain medicines and chemicals, and viruses. However, in many cases there is no clear culprit.

6. Is it hereditary? There is no doubt that some families have more than one member with lupus. In other families the genetic link is there, but less obvious (ie, other members of the family may have a related autoimmune condition, eg, a daughter with lupus, an aunt with thyroid disease, a grandmother with rheumatoid arthritis).

7. How do I know if I have lupus? The clinical features of lupus include fever, fatigue, rashes, aches and pains, and potentially life-threatening internal organ (kidney, heart, brain etc) involvement.

8. What tests are there? Most lupus patients can be diagnosed by a simple blood test. The doctor ticks 3 main boxes on the form – ANA, DNA and aCL (anti-cardiolipin).

9. What treatments are available? The spectrum of treatment for lupus patients has broadened in recent years. As well as a range of drugs, including antimalarials, steroids and immunosuppressives, treatment is also directed at lifestyle measures, management of related problems such as blood pressure, and prevention of conditions such as osteoporosis, thrombosis and coronary artery disease.

10. The future? The prognosis for lupus has improved out of all recognition. Once regarded as a ‘doom and gloom, small print’ disease, lupus is gaining recognition worldwide, with the majority of patients now able to lead a full and active life.


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