Lupus Disproportionately Impacts Women of Color

Written by: Jada Vanderpool

Published on: 4 March 2021

Body aches. Headaches. A fever and skin rashes. This sounds like it can be any illness from a bacterial infection to dehydration. But for many women these are just a few common symptoms of lupus. Systematic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an immune system disease and the most common form of lupus. With lupus, the immune system, which is meant to protect the body from infection instead attacks various parts of the body. The attack leads to tissue damage and illness.

Women of color are disproportionately impacted by the illness. Studies show that lupus is two or three times more prevalent among women of color than white women. In addition, lupus affects one in 537 young African American women at a younger age than other races.

Causes of Lupus

Genetics

Genetics can play a role in the development and severity of lupus. If immediate relatives suffer from lupus, then you may be more susceptible to it. Research advancements have not gone as far as testing to determine lupus based on genetic profiles, however it is in the works.

Lack of Awareness

Lupus has similar symptoms of other illnesses, but is also not a common disease. As a result, it is not the first diagnosis that comes to mind for people, including ER and primary care doctors. Many patients of color are not aware of what lupus is and how it affects our body. A 2012 Lupus Awareness Survey found that 74 percent of Hispanics and 57 percent of African Americans said they had never heard of lupus or knew little to nothing about it.

Socioeconomic Factors

Lack of access to health care and bias can make it more trivial to diagnosis a patient of color.

Symptoms

One of the most commonly traceable traits of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks, however there are several other symptoms like:

  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Fever
  • Chest pain when breathing deeply
  • Hair loss
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sensitivity to sun and light
  • Kidney problems like weight gain, swollen ankles, high blood pressure and decreased kidney function
  • Mouth sores
  • Short term memory loss
  • Dry eyes
  • Rashes on other parts of the body
  • Anemia
  • Blood clotting

Lupus can can cause the following health complications:

  • Kidney complications, kidney damage and kidney failure
  • Brain and central nervous system failure (dizziness, vision problems, and potentially strokes and seizures)
  • Heart Complications, including a greater risk of heart attacks
  • Blood vessel issues like anemia and blood clotting

How is lupus diagnosed?

Because the symptoms of lupus vary by person and can change over time, diagnosis can be done in three ways:

  • Laboratory Test: Blood and urine test can be done to determine blood count, protein levels of blood cells, the rate blood cells settle or the presence of antibodies.
  • Imagery Test: Chest x-rays can show fluid or inflammation in the lungs. Echocardiograms are used to check your heartbeat and if there are problems with your valve or problems in other areas of your heart.
  • Biopsy: Since lupus can harm your kidneys, a biopsy can be done to test kidney tissue. A skin biopsy may also be done to test affected skin.

 A 2008 study found that the average annual direct health care costs (one in four patients of the study received healthcare through a government program) of lupus patients was $12,643, and the lost hours of productive work for patients of employment age is $8,659 – which sums up to nearly $20,000 of a financial loss.

Treatment Methods

Although there is no cure for lupus, treatment is available to help reduce the pain of symptoms, calm your immune system, organ damage and joint damage.

  • NSAIDS (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs): These are over the counter drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen that work to reduce pain and swelling in joints and muscles.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids best known as prednisone work to reduce inflammation and pain and can calm your immune system. This powerful treatment responds quickly the form of pills, a shot or cream applied to the skin.
  • Antimalarial Drugs: Although they are intended to prevent or treat malaria, this medicine also treat lupus factors like joint pain, skin rashes, fatigue and lung inflammation.
  • BLyS-specific inhibitors: B cells are cells in the immune system that create antibodies. Abnormal B cells can be found in lupus, in this drug works to limit the amount of abnormal cells by blocking the action of a specific protein in the body that is major to immune response.
  • Immunosuppressive agents/Chemotherapy:  This is an extreme method of treatment for lupus patients with severe lupus complications that affect major organs, including the kidney, brain, cardiovascular system and lungs.

Immunosuppressives suppress lupus attacks by interfering with the synthesis of DNA. This is only recommended by doctors for extreme lupus, as the medication is known to increase the risk of cancer development later in life – however since lupus is known to cause cancer, immunosuppresives may potentially lessen the affects.