Pain in the Joints
Although arthritis affects about 46 million Americans, the severity of the disease is not well understood, two Richmond-area rheumatologists say.
"People do not think of arthritis as a big deal," says Dr. Harry Gewanter, one of just five pediatric rheumatologists in Virginia. "There are many kinds of arthritis … [but] this is a big-time disease. Like many chronic illnesses, it affects more than the most prominent organ system, the joints. The downstream effects are huge."
Arthritis is also widely misperceived as a malady for the aging, though two-thirds of the people diagnosed with arthritis nationwide are younger than 65. It affects more than 7,000 children across the state and more than 300,000 across the country.
In an effort to draw attention to the illness, Gewanter and Dr. Lenore Buckley, a rheumatologist at VCU Medical Center, have visited Capitol Hill numerous times during the past five years to advocate for legislation to address needs they see in the fight against arthritis.
"It is the greatest cause of disability in the population," Buckley says, adding that the goal of her time in Washington has been "to create public and political awareness for how big a problem arthritis is."
Gewanter and Buckley are among those pushing for the Arthritis Prevention, Control and Cure Act through the Arthritis Foundation and the American College of Rheumatology. The measure would provide funding for public-health initiatives, help diagnose cases earlier to avoid permanent disability, establish a juvenile-arthritis database to provide more accurate studies and provide financial support so that more doctors will enter the field of pediatric rheumatology.
The legislation has been introduced for a number of years, but Gewanter hopes that this year's focus on health-care reform will offer the bill a window of opportunity.
Gewanter says his visits to D.C. have included handing "prescriptions" to legislators written off his prescription pad to vote for the act. Joined by others from the Arthritis Foundation, he helped lead a group of children who suffer from arthritis, coaching them in what to say to legislators on behalf of the act. One year, children also decorated cards that included their photos and the message "Think of Me," which they handed to legislators.
The act would also address the shortage of pediatric rheumatologists by establishing a loan repayment program for these specialists.
"There are some states with no physicians," says Buckley. "Some children have to travel three to four hours to see a doctor." She adds that this is partly because the field is not as lucrative as other specialties and partly because not many medical students are exposed to it. Gewanter says that another reason these doctors are few in number is that they have little backup in their field and thus, longer hours.
The overarching hope is that research will lead to a cure for arthritis.
"What everyone is really pushing for is finding the underlying cause and a cure," Buckley says. "We are trying to identify arthritis at its earlier stages, rather than when has already caused a lot of inflammation … earlier treatment leads to better outcomes."
For more information on the Arthritis Prevention, Control and Cure Act, visit arthritis.org/apcca.php .
One of the 7,200 children suffering from arthritis across the commonwealth is Dymond Carle, a 14-year-old Henrico County student who has been battling scleroderma, a form of arthritis, since age 5, and advocates locally for arthritis research. This month, Dymond is the 2010 Richmond Junior Walk Hero for the local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. She will attend an April 24 walk and speak to the participants. To hear Dymond tell more of her story — or to sign up for the 1- or 3-mile walks, visit arthritis.org/chapters/virginia .