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If it weren’t for the immune system—the human body’s natural defense against outside invaders—we would be sick all the time. This complex network of cells, organs and molecules fights off things like bacteria and viruses 24 hours a day, from our head to our toes. It’s a powerful protection when it’s working for us, but can also be a powerful threat when it turns against us, in what’s called an autoimmune disease (“auto” meaning “self”).
Autoimmune diseases in children are generally rare, and when they occur they can be challenging to diagnose and difficult to treat. Doctors are still learning about this large group of mostly chronic illnesses—more than 80 in all—and most have no cure yet. If your child has an autoimmune problem, much depends on figuring out what it is and treating it aggressively, both of which we specialize in at Boston Children’s Hospital.
In an autoimmune disease, something causes the immune system to mistakenly begin attacking healthy cells and tissues.
Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of the body, though often target connective tissues (skin, muscle and joints).
Symptoms can range from fatigue and mild rashes to rare, serious warning signs, like seizures.
Diagnosis can be difficult because many symptoms tend to come and go, and are frequently nonspecific—they occur in different kinds of autoimmune diseases as well as other types of illnesses, like infection and cancer.
On the whole, autoimmune diseases occur most often in females (by a 3-to-1 margin over males).
Autoimmune diseases that occur in children include:
How Children’s Hospital Boston approaches autoimmune diseases
While the health care team for children with autoimmune diseases may include many kinds of specialists, the doctors with the greatest expertise in these illnesses are called pediatric rheumatologists. And of the roughly 200 pediatric rheumatologists in the country, more than half a dozen work at Children’s Hospital Boston, making us a unique and powerful force in fighting autoimmune disease.
Home to the world’s largest pediatric research enterprise, Children’s Hospital Boston is also looking toward the future. Through initiatives like the Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research and the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine, our clinicians and scientists are working together on new ways to identify, treat and potentially cure autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases: Reviewed by Melissa Hazen, MD
© Children’s Hospital Boston, 2011
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