Rising rates of autoimmune conditions are costing the UK billions each year, health experts have warned.
Connect Immune Research, a coalition of medical research charities, said many autoimmune conditions are becoming more common, with some increasing in incidence by as much as 9% each year.
It has published a report, which shows direct and indirect costs to the UK for just three autoimmune conditions alone – type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis – currently add up to more than £13 billion a year.
Altogether, there are more than 80 autoimmune conditions known to science, but the reason for the rise is not known and the charities are campaigning for change in the way research is approached.
The report suggests that rising incidence and costs mean autoimmunity in the UK needs greater recognition and investment as a distinct research area, alongside the likes of cancer, infectious disease and dementia.
There are four million people in the UK known to be living with at least one autoimmune condition, but the report highlights that people often live with more than one.
Chloe Gillum, 25, a paediatric nurse from Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, lives with three autoimmune conditions.
At the age of nine she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and went on to develop vitiligo and an underactive thyroid, which caused secondary Raynaud’s disease. All need daily medication.
She said: “One of the hardest things about living with autoimmune conditions is people not understanding the impact this has on my life.
“My type 1 diabetes is very time-consuming, not only because of the constant management, but also having to explain it to friends and employers for my own safety.
“There are so many misconceptions around it and, even working in a hospital, I get funny looks when people see me injecting insulin before meals.
“The underactive thyroid sometimes feels like the most annoying of my conditions. It only requires taking a tablet once a day, but the dose required changes constantly depending on hormones.
“If the dose is not correct, I can have issues with controlling my body temperature, fainting and generally feeling tired and grumpy, which is unfair on my family.”
Autoimmune conditions see the body’s immune system mistakenly attack healthy cells in the body.
Examples include type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Connect Immune Research is made up of type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, the MS Society and Versus Arthritis, and is supported by the British Society for Immunology.
— JDRF UK (@JDRFUK) November 23, 2018
Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society, said: “Driving research forward is essential if we’re to make the scientific discoveries so vitally needed in autoimmunity.
“That’s why we need the UK government to offer their support, and recognise this as a distinct area of research science – much like cancer, infectious disease, and dementia.
“Around four million people in the UK have an autoimmune condition and we must find a way to prevent that figure from escalating.”
Karen Addington, UK chief executive of JDRF, said: “This alarming and unexplained rise in autoimmune conditions among the UK population must be confronted.
“These conditions are causing pain, difficulty and lost opportunities in work and life.”
Dr Stephen Simpson, director of research at Versus Arthritis, said: “The immune system continues to intrigue us and as we get closer to finding ways of moderating its response in inflammatory arthritis, new and unexpected challenges emerge.
“This is why it’s important for charities and scientists to come together in this way and look at autoimmune conditions collectively, as well as focusing on specific conditions.”