I am not sure how many people on the African continent have heard the word “Lupus Disease”. At least for me, it is true I only learned of it as an adult in the medical field, yet people of African descend seem to be more prone to the disease, going by recent studies in America. Popsinger Seal, RNB singer Tony Braxton suffer from Lupus Disease and Micheal Jackson was also rumoured to suffer from Lupus Disease. Doctors call it Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or simply lupus and it belongs to a group of autoimmune diseases. An autoimmune disease is a situation whereby the body’s defence system mistaken healthy body cells for germ, bacteria or viruses and starts attacking it. Everybody has a defence system called the immune system, which protects it from bacteria, viruses and other germs. However for reasons still unknown the body’s defence system might mistake healthy tissue for germ and attacks it. This is what happens in Lupus disease. Some people are born with a tendency toward developing lupus, which may be triggered by infections, certain drugs or even sunlight. While there’s no cure for lupus, treatments can help control symptoms.
Africa was once thought to be free of the disease Lupus. Now health experts in places like Nigeria are saying the disease is a problem on the continent – but insufficient resources and lack of awareness were resulting in misdiagnosis.
Common symptoms include fever, joint pain, skin rashes especially in the face, mouth ulcers and fatigue – symptoms that are shared by many other illnesses, making lupus very hard to diagnose. One of the first symptoms doctors often see in patients is a fever, so malaria being a common disease is often assumped. Many patients end up being treated over and over and over for malaria. The lack of diagnostic kits such as vital antibody tests for Lupus makes the situation worse.
Another key problem is that patients do not come forward when they feel they may be ill. And those who know they have lupus often stay away from doctors for fear of the stigma that comes with the disease, which many mistake for HIV.
Even with greater awareness, there are still barriers to effective diagnosis in Africa. In places like Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana, the tests are not available unless the patient already has full-blown symptoms of lupus, by which time they may already be seriously ill.
For a long time, lupus appeared to have a negligible prevalence on the African continent. Now health experts are discovering that Africa’s seeming immunity to lupus was only due to a mix of lack of awareness, inadequate medical resources and culturally ingrained fear of disease. In the developed world, where lupus can be caught and treated early, the disease is usually not life threatening. In the developing world, however, mortality rates are high.
What you need to know about Lupus:
- Lupus is not contagious, not even through sexual contact. You cannot “catch” lupus from someone or “give” lupus to someone.
- Lupus is not cancer. Cancer is a condition of malignant, abnormal tissues that grow rapidly and spread into surrounding tissues. Lupus is an autoimmune disease, as described above.
- Lupus is not like or related to HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). In HIV or AIDS the immune system is underactive; in lupus, the immune system is overactive.
- Lupus can range from mild to life-threatening and should always be treated by a doctor. With good medical care, most people with lupus can lead a full life
- Women in their reproductive age are more likely to develop lupus. However, men, children, and teenagers develop lupus, too.
- Most people who develop lupus are between 15 – 44 yrs old
- An estimated 5 million people throughout the world have a form of lupus
- People of all races and ethnic groups can develop lupus
What to watch out for:
See your doctor if you develop an unexplained rash, ongoing fever, persistent aching or fatigue.
Signs and Symptoms:
- Fatigue and fever
- Joint pain, stiffness and swelling
- Butterfly-shaped rash on the face that covers the cheeks and bridge of the nose.
- Skin lesions that appear or worsen with sun exposure (photosensitivity)
- Fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during stressful periods or when you wake in the morning(Raynaud’s phenomenon). This might be accompanied by numbness or pain. This is called Raynaud Phenomenon and it is caused by sudden obstruction of blood flow to the fingers and toes. Bleeding may occur underneath the nails when blood flow returns.
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dry eyes
- Headaches, confusion and memory loss
- Kidneys. Lupus can cause serious kidney damage, and kidney failure is one of the leading causes of death among people with lupus.
- Brain and central nervous system. If your brain is affected by lupus, you may experience headaches, dizziness, behavior changes, hallucinations, and even strokes or seizures. Many people with lupus experience memory problems and may have difficulty expressing their thoughts.
- Blood and blood vessels. Lupus may lead to blood problems, including anemia and increased risk of bleeding or blood clotting. It can also cause inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis).
- Lungs. Having lupus increases your chances of developing an inflammation of the chest cavity lining, which can make breathing painful. You may also be more susceptible to pneumonia.
- Heart. Lupus can cause inflammation of your heart muscle, your arteries or heart membrane (pericarditis). The risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks increases greatly as well.
- Infection. People with lupus are more vulnerable to infection because both the disease and its treatments weaken the immune system. Infections that most commonly affect people with lupus include urinary tract infections, respiratory infections, yeast infections, salmonella, herpes and shingles.
- Cancer. Having lupus appears to increase your risk of cancer.
- Bone tissue death (avascular necrosis). This occurs when the blood supply to a bone diminishes, often leading to tiny breaks in the bone and eventually to the bone’s collapse. The hip joint is most commonly affected.
- Pregnancy complications. Women with lupus have an increased risk of miscarriage. Lupus increases the risk of high blood pressure during pregnancy (preeclampsia) and preterm birth. To reduce the risk of these complications, doctors often recommend delaying pregnancy until your disease has been under control for at least six months.
How is Lupus Disease Treated
Treating Lupus is based on fighting inflammation on one hand while suppressing the “overactive” immune system on the other. Therapy thus involves medications called immunosuppressors, some of which are also used in the treatment of cancer. This does not mean that you have cancer.
With no systematic collection of data on lupus sufferers around Africa, solid statistics are hard to come by. But anecdotal evidence suggests the number of women and men being diagnosed with lupus is rising. The reason for this increase in Africa is not necessarily that more people are contracting the disease, but simply that more people in the medical community are recognizing the symptoms.