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Kemi Afolabi: 10 facts you should know about lupus


Kemi Afolabi


For some, Kemi Afolabi’s announcement might be the first time they would hear of the disease called Lupus.

As new as it might sound, lupus is a common disease in Nigeria with over 100,000 cases diagnosed per year, according to the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan.

Here are 10 facts you should know about lupus:

Autoimmune disease

No one is sure what causes lupus, but doctors do know that the symptoms emerge when your immune system is not working as it should.

Your immune system cells that are supposed to protect the body from different germs start treating normal, healthy cells like invaders, attacking them and causing flare-ups that can affect the joints, kidneys, and almost any other system in the body.

No clear symptoms

Symptoms of lupus vary from person to person, from severity to the body parts affected. Some of the most common signs of lupus are rash and joint pain, according to rheumatologists. Symptoms can also include fatigue, hair loss, mouth sores, and fever.

Diagnosed at any age

Women of childbearing age (between 15 and 44) are at the highest risk of lupus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the disease isn’t limited to younger adults. Between 10 and 20 per cent of people with systemic lupus are diagnosed before age 18, according to a study in Nature Reviews Rheumatology, and adults can also have “late-onset” lupus that is diagnosed after age 50.  

Race is a risk factor

People of colour — particularly people of African descent — are at a higher risk of lupus than white people are, and the disease tends to affect populations differently. These patients tend to have higher mortality rates than white patients, while Hispanic and Asian patients have a lower risk of lupus, according to a study of 42,000 lupus cases.

Women are at a higher risk

Most studies find that about 90 per cent of lupus patients are women, according to a review in Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism.

The study also found that men tend to have more damage earlier in the disease and have lower survival rates. Hormones might play a role in sex differences, but studies have not found a conclusive answer.

Diagnosis based on symptoms and tests

Without a single blood test to clinch a lupus diagnosis, rheumatologists need to look at the whole picture.

When rheumatologists suspect an autoimmune problem, they will take your symptoms into account while looking at X-rays, blood tests, and biopsies to see if results match what they’d expect from lupus, or if it is more likely a different disease.

Looks like other conditions

Other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and Lyme disease share symptoms with lupus.

Without a specific blood test pointing to lupus or other autoimmune conditions, it can sometimes take trial and error for rheumatologists to pin down the right diagnosis.

There is no cure

At this point, scientists have not found a cure for lupus. That said, though a chronic disease, it is not a death sentence. With new medications, lupus mortality rates have improved over time, and the life expectancy for women with lupus-related kidney inflammation is almost on par with women of similar age groups in the general population, according to a study in the Internal Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology.

A rheumatologist will be able to recommend the best treatment plan for a particular patient.

Some babies are born with the disease

Sometimes, a mother with lupus or antibodies related to it can pass those antibodies to her newborn, causing a form of lupus called neonatal lupus.

Typically, the result is lupus-like skin lesions that go away after a few months, when the babies start to make their own antibodies, he says.

In rare cases, the child of a mother with those antibodies will develop a condition known as congenital heart block, but moms-to-be with lupus shouldn’t stress. Only 2 to 5 per cent of babies whose mothers have those antibodies will develop congenital heart block, according to a study in Arthritis & Rheumatology.

These problems can be detected during ultrasound during pregnancy and babies can be treated immediately after being born by getting a pacemaker implanted to help regulate the electrical activity of the heart.

Can damage the kidneys and increases cardiovascular risk

Left unchecked, inflammation running rampant in the body can lead to serious complications. For lupus, damage to the kidneys is a big concern. About 40 to 70 per cent of lupus patients have kidney inflammation, according to a study in Nature Reviews Nephrology, making renal failure one of the main comorbidities.

Indirectly, lupus can lead to cardiovascular problems. Lupus doesn’t directly affect the heart, but the inflammation the disease causes can speed up the formation of blood clots.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in people who have had lupus for more than five years, according to a study in Current Cardiology Reviews.

One thing you can do to help reduce your risk of heart disease is to eat a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet that focuses on healthy vegetables and seafood while avoiding red meat, doctors recommend.


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