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Autoimmunity and Women

WASHINGTON, June 11, 1996 /PRNewswire/ — The U.S. Public Health Service’s (PHS) Office on Women’s Health today launched its first conference in the 1996 Washington D.C. Healthy Women 2000 series. The conference, entitled “Unlocking the Mysteries: Autoimmune Disease in Women,” featured renowned autoimmune disease specialists from around the U.S. to discuss an understudied, misunderstood, and often misdiagnosed class of illnesses that are the fourth leading contributors to women’s disability.

Dr. Susan J. Blumenthal, U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), discussed why these disorders are more prevalent in women and what biological and psychosocial factors contribute to them. She also outlined for the group new advances in treatment that have been made. In the discussion about future research directions on autoimmune disorders, Dr. Blumenthal and the experts that spoke throughout the morning provided a blueprint for hope for the millions of American women that are faced with these debilitating diseases.

Autoimmunity, which is the underlying cause of over 80 serious chronic illnesses (see chart), targets women approximately 75% of the time. Autoimmune diseases have been estimated to cost $86 billion a year. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system’s method of recognizing foreign substances becomes confused. When that happens, the body manufactures immune cells known as T-cells, and autoantibodies, which assault the body’s own cells and organs. These misguided T-cells and autoantibodies contribute to many autoimmune diseases. Exactly what starts the process which results in an autoimmune disease is not known, but multiple factors including heredity, viruses, and the environment are believed to play a role.

Because these diseases cross different medical specialties such as rheumatology, endocrinology, neurology, cardiology, gastroenterology and dermatology, there has been minimal coordinated scientific attention to the underlying causes of these diseases and to the determination of why they are more prevalent in women.

Today’s symposium, the first of three Healthy Women 2000 conferences to be held in the nation’s capital this summer, was co-sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers in collaboration with the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, the Lupus Foundation of America, the Scleroderma Research Foundation, and the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation.

Also speaking at the conference were actress Dana Delany, who recently completed filming “FOR HOPE,” a movie-for-television airing this fall about a woman’s struggle with the disabling disease scleroderma and Bob Saget, the actor whose sister is the subject of “FOR HOPE”; and Kimberly Vaughn, Mrs. Georgia-America, who described her struggle with Sjogren’s syndrome. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Dr. Steven Katz, Director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Muscoskeletal and Skin Diseases outlined future research directions to increase knowledge about these illnesses.

Healthy Women 2000 is a series of health education conferences sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service’s Office on Women’s Health featuring prominent experts in the scientific and health-related fields who focus on specific health topics and their impact on women, highlighting the latest research developments and scientific advances on critical women’s health issues.

The two remaining summer conferences in the Washington, D.C. Healthy Women 2000 series will be held on June 27 and July 11. The June 27 event is entitled “Having a Heart to Heart: The Truth About Women, Heart Disease and Stroke.” The focus of the July 11 conference will be an exploration of the interface between women’s minds, their bodies and their health.

Since its establishment in 1991, the U.S. Public Health Service’s Office on Women’s Health within the Department of Health and Human Services, has become the government’s champion and focal point for women’s health issues. The Office was established to provide national leadership to advance women’s health and to redress the inequities in research, health care services and public and health care education that have placed the health of American women at risk.

Support for the conference was provided in part by an unrestricted educational grant to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers from Teva Marion Partners.

FEMALE/MALE RATIO IN AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES

DISEASE RATIO

•Type I diabetes 5:1
•Multiple sclerosis 2:1
•Scleroderma 3:1
•Rheumatoid arthritis 4:1
•Chronic active hepatitis 8:1
•Primary biliary cirrhosis 9:1
•Systemic lupus erythematosus 9:1
•Graves’ disease 7:1
•Myanthenia gravis 2:1
•Chronic idiopathic thrombocytopenic 2:1
•Sjogren’s disease 9:1
•Antiphospholipid syndrome 9:1
•Mixed Connective Tissue Disease 8:1
•Hashimoto’s disease 50:1