Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) simply referred to as Lupus was once considered a rare disease. With modern diagnostic techniques and greater awareness it is now considered to be more common than was previously thought, affecting 2.8 million Americans with more than 90 percent of these being women. According to Dr. Cindy Flower, the only Rheumatologist in Barbados, there are over 300 patients currently documented in the Lupus Registry with most individuals being followed through the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH). An average of 15 to 25 new patients are diagnosed per year.
Lupus typically affects women between the ages of 15 and 44, the most productive and reproductive years and is three times more common in Black patients than in Caucasians. However anyone can develop Lupus with patients of any age group, any race and either sex being diagnosed.
Renal disease in Lupus is the major cause of hospitalization and the major cause of death. It is also one of the top 5 reasons for the need for dialysis on the island. In spite of these facts Lupus is not as well known to the general public than less prevalent diseases like Leukemia and Multiple Sclerosis.
Although it is not known how Lupus is contracted, research suggests an interplay of genetic and environmental factors. However, research has failed to identify, even remotely, any possibility that it is contagious. Perhaps this is why this condition fails to capture the constant attention of the media in much the same way as communicable diseases. This has
led, on the part of public health officials, to an absence of determination to bombard the media with information on recognition of the signs that are suspicious of Lupus and its early diagnosis.
The symptoms can range from complaints of painful and swollen joints, fevers, rashes on the skin and chest pains to more clinically obvious indicators such as protein in the urine. This condition has the propensity to affect any organ system and multiple organs concurrently.
Lack of awareness particularly among health care professionals, has resulted in late diagnoses which often result in high mortality rates. In 1994, Professor George Nicholson, then Consultant
Nephrologist, indicated that the mortality rate of the Barbados Lupus population was 23 percent and this could be compared to 5 percent in the USA during the same time.
The signs in Lupus differ from one person to another and one of the greatest complexities is that a person can be very ill and look extremely well. Lupus has been described as a great mystery and its propensity to mimic other conditions often makes it hard to diagnose.