Coping with juvenile arthritis

New campaigns by the Middle East Arthritis Foundation aim to highlight how the disease affects under 18s in the UAE

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As new campaigns by the Middle East Arthritis Foundation aim to highlight how the disease affects under 18s in the UAE, Benita Adesuyan speaks to Dr Humeira Badsha, founding Member of the organisation, to find out more.

When you’re young, the last thing you might expect is a trip to the doctors that reveals you have arthritis. While the joint inflammation condition is commonly associated with the elderly, juvenile idiopathic arthritis affects one in a hundred people under the age of 18 – an age they should be enjoying a full range of movement easily.

The Middle East Arthritis Foundation (formerly Emirates Arthritis Foundation) has recently held a series of events to help raise awareness of the condition and offer support to sufferers and their families. Dr Humeira Badsha, founding Member of the organisation, has worked in the field for 25 years and has been leading the campaign. We spoke with her about the impact of the disease and what parents can look out for.

What is juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and how does it differ from the arthritis that affects the elderly?
Arthritis in the elderly, such as osteoarthritis, is usually down to wear and tear and occurs when the cartilage gets worn, but JIA is an autoimmune disease that occurs when a child’s immune system becomes overactive and attacks the body from inside. It can affect multiple joints, which differs from the arthritis that we see in older people, which tends to affect just one or two joints.

Who is most at risk?
All age groups can be affected by arthritis. People tend to think of it as an old person’s disease, but it occurs in many forms. Anyone can develop rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases can affect people of any age.

What causes it?
It’s caused by a genetic predisposition rather than by a lack of exercise or poor diet.

So if a parent has it, will their child have it?
It can skip a few generations, so it’s not usually the case that if a parent has it, the child will also have it. But different types of autoimmune diseases tend to get clustered in families, so if there’s a family history of them –for example a mother has thyroid problems, a father has vitiligo or a sibling has JIA – then other children within the family may also be at risk.

Is the disease more severe in younger people?
JIA can affect a child’s physical development especially around the growth phase. It can cause one limb to grow less than the opposite limb so the sufferer can also end up with one leg longer than the other. They can end up with deformities of the joints if the condition is left untreated and it can stunt growth, so the consequences can be devastating.

What symptoms should parents look out for?
JIA can be hard to spot because a lot of children may not complain, or parents may put complaints down to their child having been overly active on a particular day. But if a child has a persistent swollen joint or is limping, or if a child is stiff in the morning or you see reduced mobility of the joints, then you should take the child for a check-up.

What’s the youngest you’ve seen this condition occur in a child?
I’ve seen children as young as one with JIA, and we currently have a little girl who is three and suffering from the disease. She gets weekly injections as medication.

Is there anything that expectant mothers can do or look out for in order to prevent the disease?
You can’t prevent autoimmune diseases if you’re already prone to them, but you can reduce the impact they can have if you keep a good weight, exercise regularly and ensure good vitamin D levels, but you can’t prevent the condition from occurring. However, early detection can prevent deformity and disability.

Is it curable?
It’s variable. Sometimes JIA just disappears as the child grows, but in other patients it can last for life and get worse with age. It can cause problems with eyesight, so people with JIA must also have regular eye checks. Some of the medication for the condition can affect the blood and kidneys, too, so these also need to be monitored regularly.

What is the standard treatment?
Immune-suppressant medication – so a variety of methotrexate – and new medicines called biological drugs, which work really well and have helped limit damage.

A JIA diagnosis must be very tough for young people, especially teens. How does the Middle East Arthritis Foundation help them?
It is tough and that’s why we run these events. We put them on every three months and get kids to take part in sports and socialise. Parents get to meet expert psychologists who can advise on how to cope with the illness. Parents get to share their common challenges and kids also get the chance to meet other sufferers and see that they’re not alone.
For more information on the Middle East Arthritis Foundation’s support groups visit www.facebook.com/EmiratesArthritisFoundation

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