Op-Ed: Underlying conditions complicate life for 130 million Americans
When the coronavirus arrived on American shores, we heard some people dismiss this pandemic as overhyped. A few pundits claimed it only affected older people and those with underlying conditions, who should gladly give up their lives.
Such statements were as upsetting as they were misinformed. For one thing, COVID-19 has proven fatal to many young, healthy individuals with no pre-existing disease. For another, the U.S. cannot simply ignore the needs of the more than 130 million Americans suffering from at least one chronic condition that could put them at greater risk.
I’m one of those people. I suffer from several autoimmune diseases, which cause my own defenses to attack my body. Autoimmunity touches about 16 percent of the U.S. population, more than cancer and cardiovascular disease combined. Incidence of autoimmune diseases is growing, particularly among the young, and no one really knows why.
For many patients, one autoimmune disease gives way to others. This has been true for me. I’ve endured the embarrassing skin rashes and scaling of psoriasis since my 20s. Later, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, a joint condition some psoriasis patients develop; and then with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), another joint condition; and with fibromyalgia, which causes full-body pain and fatigue.
I rely on constant pharmaceutical innovation. Treatments for autoimmunity will work for a while, but they eventually lose effectiveness. You have to increase dosages and ultimately switch to another medication. I live in constant hope that there will always be another new therapy on the horizon.
Suddenly, the entire world is living in this same mindset. We’re all awaiting new therapies and betting on a cure—this time for COVID-19.
The sense of urgency is especially strong among the autoimmune disease community. Many of us use biologics and other therapies to suppress our overactive immune systems, but these treatments leave us more vulnerable to infectious disease.
We, therefore, face difficult choices. Should we suspend our treatments until the coronavirus passes over? Is it worthwhile to risk further joint damage from RA, for example, by going untreated for a time? Or would the resulting increase in inflammation leave us even more vulnerable to the virus? Doctors don’t have reliable answers and are working with patients on a case-by-case basis. 
This means that when the nation reopens for business, the freedom may not reach all of us right away. With heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and other conditions associated with more severe cases of COVID-19, tens of millions of patients may need to keep up extreme social distancing or put their lives at risk.
This nation and our economy need everyone’s contributions. Lady Gaga is not expendable because of her fibromyalgia, just as Michael J. Fox is no less of a person for his Parkinson’s or Serena Williams for her Sjogren’s syndrome. The same can be said for the parents, spouses, grocery workers, health care professionals, artists, ranchers, small business owners, and others who suffer from a chronic disease without ever making a magazine cover.
We need effective COVID-19 treatments and, most importantly, a pure, unadulterated coronavirus vaccine, so that everyone, regardless of health status, can safely get back to normal. That means we need our domestic pharmaceutical industry like never before. The U.S. must apply all of our hard-earned expertise to defeating this pandemic.
But we cannot stop there. The prevalence of underlying conditions across the nation will always leave America vulnerable when an epidemic strikes. We must continue to build up our stockpile of medicines of all types, so we always have candidate drugs available to test against new infectious agents and symptoms. And, most importantly, we must move forward in understanding the root cause of various diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer’s, so we can develop cures to rid humanity of these harmful conditions once and for all.
Tiffany Bacon is a psoriasis patient, an award-winning Austin Entrepreneur, 2009 Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Texas Blazing Star Finalist, and single mother of six wonderful children.
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