International Women’s Day, Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month and the Struggle

Remembering the ‘Struggle’

International Women’s Day isn’t just about celebrating women and their accomplishments, originally it was about the fight and struggle for women’s rights – something that is still seen in some languages, such as Danish, where today is known as Kvindernes Internationale Kampdag – or International Women’s Day of Struggle (similar history is seen for Labour Day).

Many say that the rights of women have been won, that there’s no use for feminism any more, and possibly even that there’s no need for a day to celebrate or fight for the rights of women (“and what about the menz…” , don’t worry, they get a day too – 19th of November every year).

Why We Still Need Feminism

There are many reasons why the struggle for equal rights, and the need for feminism is still relevant today:

  • reproductive rights
  • equal pay
  • fempathizing
  • representation in politics
  • representation in business
  • sexual harassment
  • body image
  • victim blaming & slut shaming
  • etc. etc. etc.

Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month

But March is also Autoimmune Disease Awareness month, a group of diseases that disproportionately affect women (about 3/4 people with an autoimmune (AI) disease are women). The list of autoimmune diseases is very long and varied, but these diseases all have in common an immune system that can no longer see the difference between friend and foe, and begin to attack the body’s own cells. The names of the different diseases help to specify what body part(s) the immune system is attacking.

Five facts about autoimmune disease everyone should know

It is known today that there is a genetic component in Autoimmune Diseases, if you have family members with an AI disease, there’s a much greater risk that you will also develop an AI disease. Once you have one, you are more likely to develop more, something known as Multiple Autoimmune Syndrome, which is when you have 3+ AI diseases.

This is something I have become much too familiar with myself over the past 1½ years. I’ve had endometriosis for years, but since my surgery in 2014 I’ve been able to add celiac disease and inflammatory arthritis, and my doctors think AI play a role in my POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), eczema and fibromyalgia as well.

Autoimmune Disease and Other Groups of Diseases

Even though so many of us will develop an AI disease in our lifetime – and practically all of us will know someone with an AI disease, it is rarely spoken about, and it doesn’t get near the attention and research that other disease groups such as cancer or cardiovascular disease does. At first glance this might make sense, AI diseases are usually chronic diseases, not something that will kill you in the short run. But AI diseases can be absolutely disabling, and greatly increase your likelihood to develop certain types of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Cancer has benefited greatly from being understood as a group of diseases, and from research into prevention and treatment of all types of cancer, rather than only looking at each type individually. AI diseases on the other hand are still usually treated or understood as separate diseases, even though the mechanism behind the development and flare ups of AI diseases all deal with the immune system.

If you have cancer you’re seen by an oncologist. If you have an AI disease you might be seen by a rheumatologist, dermatologist, gastroenterologist, gynaecologist etc. If you have more than one AI disease there’s a good chance you’ll have to be seen by more than one doctor, each specialist only dealing with “their” AI disease.

Autoimmune Diseases and Women

It is disconcerting how frequently lack of study and research correlates with a disease being primarily a “women’s issue”.

For the following, please keep in mind that AI diseases disproportionately affect women:

  • AI Diseases have often caused symptoms for years before being diagnosed
    (This is especially so for diseases exclusively targeting women, such as endometriosis)
  • AI Diseases are amongst the Top 10 cause of deaths in women and children under 65
  • The immune-modulating treatment of AI diseases have devastating long-term side effects
  • There’s approximately 6 times more people with an AI disease than people with cancer, and twice as many people with an AI disease than with cardiovascular disease
  • Massive lack of research in prevention and treatment of AI diseases. In the US:
    – funding for AI diseases in 2003: $591 million
    – funding for cancer: $6.1 billion
    – funding for cardiovascular disease: $2.4 billion
  • Chronic pain from AI disease (and any other disease) is frequently under treated, especially in women

For further information on AI diseases, I refer you to American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

On this years International Women’s Day, I encourage you to learn more about AI diseases, especially what signs and symptoms to watch out for, get to know your family’s medical history, and help educate other people on the seriousness and importance of recognizing, treating, studying and researching AI diseases. 

 

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