The Cutting-Edge Science that Promises Hope
The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World out of Balance
We trim and append this excerpt from the book with the same title as above, published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in 2008, February.
by Donna Jackson NakazawaImagine -- the tingling foot and ankle that turns out to be the beginning of the slow paralysis of multiple sclerosis. Four hundred thousand patients. Excruciating joint pain and inflammation, skin rashes, and never-ending flu-like symptoms that lead to the diagnosis of lupus. One and a half million more. Relentless bouts of vertigo -- the hallmark of Ménière's. Seven out of every one thousand Americans. Severe abdominal pain, bleeding rectal fissures, uncontrollable diarrhea, and chronic intestinal inflammation that define Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel disease. More than 2 million patients. Dry mouth so persistent eight glasses of water a day won't soothe the parched throat and tongue and the mysterious swallowing difficulties that are the first signs of Sjögren's. Four million Americans. And, with almost every autoimmune disease, life-altering bouts of exhaustion.
Nearly 24 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune illness. Taken collectively, these diseases, which also include type 1 diabetes, Graves' disease, vasculitis, myasthenia gravis, connective tissue diseases, autoimmune Addison's disease, vitiligo, rheumatoid arthritis, hemolytic anemia, celiac disease, and scleroderma are now the Number Two cause of chronic illness in America. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, by contrast, is not an autoimmune disease; it’s when a virus attacks the immune system and destroys it, whereas in autoimmune disease, the immune system, mistaking the body's tissue for an invader, attacks the body itself.
Autoimmune diseases are the third leading cause of Social Security disability behind heart disease and cancer. They represent a yearly health-care burden of more than $120 billion, compared to the yearly health-care burden of $70 billion for direct medical costs for cancer.
While one in 69 women below the age of fifty will be diagnosed with breast cancer, as many as one in nine women of childbearing years will be diagnosed with an autoimmune illness. They strike three times as many women as men -- and most often strike patients in their prime. And while 2.2 million women are living with breast cancer and 7.2 million women have coronary disease, an estimated 9.8 million women are afflicted with one of the seven more common autoimmune diseases.
All of these can lead to potentially fatal complications. Autoimmune diseases are the eighth leading cause of death among women, shortening the average patient's lifespan by fifteen years.
The epidemiological evidence is like an escalating tsunami. The incidence of lupus has nearly tripled in the United States over the past four decades.
Over the past fifty years multiple sclerosis rates have tripled in Finland. In Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, the number of people with MS has been rising at nearly 3% a year. Multiple sclerosis rates in Norway have risen 30% since 1963. In Germany, Italy, and Greece, MS rates have doubled over the past thirty to forty years.
Type 1 diabetes has increased fivefold. The number of children with type 1 diabetes is increasing 6% a year in children four and under and 4% in children aged 10 to 14.
A doctor who’d seen a patient eight times said, "We've given you every test known to man except for an autopsy. Would you like one of those too?" In its earliest stages, doctors label 45% of patients with autoimmune diseases as hypochondriacs.
These rising rates are in part due to better diagnosis. Yet researchers hold that what is driving these numbers steeply upward is pollution. There are over 1200 Superfund sites around the US -- areas where toxins are seeping into the environment; near them exist autoimmune clusters.
Eighty thousand chemicals have been approved for use in our environment. Every year 1700 new chemicals are approved. Toxins, pesticides, and heavy metals have become a part of our everyday living. We all carry a "body burden" in our bloodstream, even babies; chemicals commonly used in household cleaners, cosmetics, and furniture are present in infant fetal cord blood.
We've created a perfect storm -- a plethora of chemicals, heavy metals, processed food additives, viral hits, and stressors -- for today's autoimmune epidemic. Whether you get an autoimmune disease depends on how many of these triggers you're exposed to over your lifetime. When it's overwhelmed by foreign invaders, the immune system can open "friendly fire" on the body.
JJS: Rather than limit the liability of those who alter nature for profit, let’s charge them for their emissions. Besides holding (a) auctions for an ever-dwindling number of permits, let’s require emitters to (b) carry Restoration Insurance and (c) pay an Ecology Security Deposit. For egregious polluters, (d) fine them. To avoid these four charges, producers will find and use the safe alternatives that are now largely available.
And, most basically, collect the rental value of land from each land owner or user. Make land dear, so owners would treat it like a Cadillac and not cause or tolerate contamination. In exchange, abolish all the counterproductive taxes on earned income, sustainable business and sales, and useful buildings.
Then use some of the collected rent to pay residents a dividend, which will swell as land value rises, which will rise as the land’s health is improved and maintained. Motivated merely by more money in the pocket, the public will defend their right to an environment conducive to human health.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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