On Rare Disease Day, Shining A Light
Lisa Kurec never heard of the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) until Wednesday, but after many years of finding no answers for her son’s rare disease, she decided to attend NORD’s Rare Disease Day event in Hartford at the Legislative Office Building. She joined patients, families, caregivers, medical professionals, industry representatives and legislators, all gathered on Rare Disease Day to help shine a light on these conditions.
Over the years Kurec, of Middletown, took her son to 25 doctors, all unable to determine why he suffered from painful ulcers throughout his body. Some symptoms were even attributed to age-appropriate conditions, such as acne.
She finally took him to a dentist, who sent him to the emergency room, where he was referred to an infectious disease doctor. By 2014, her now 26-year-old son was diagnosed with Behcet’s disease (pronounced beh-CHETS), a rare disorder that causes blood vessel inflammation throughout the body. Signs and symptoms seem unrelated at first, and include mouth sores, eye inflammation, skin rashes and lesions, and genital sores.
At Wednesday’s event, hosted by NORD, the official sponsor of Rare Disease Day in the United States, and NORD’s Connecticut Rare Action Network, Kurec immediately learned about NORD’s Patient Assistance programs and much more to help her find support for her son.
NORD President Peter Saltonstall told the gathering of about 120 people that there are about 7,000 rare diseases, with fewer than 500 having FDA-approved therapies; that leaves 95 percent of patients with no available treatment.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said, adding, “NORD is the voice for the rare disease patient.” Thirty million Americans have rare diseases, including 300,000 in Connecticut.
He noted that NORD receives more than a million hits monthly on its website from people looking for help and said Rare Disease Day is the one day people come together globally to close the gap between the number of rare diseases and the number of available treatments.
NORD has more than 260 member organizations, including Sofia Sees Hope, which unite to promote patient and caregiver advocacy, and research for treatment and cures for those with rare diseases.
Speakers at Wednesday’s event promoted Connecticut as a good place for investment in research and development in creating new treatments, and for job opportunities and economic growth. They reached out to legislators, asking them to keep in mind tax incentives and other ways of encouraging the business of research in the state.
Legislators attending included Republican State Sen. Len Fasano, who said, “In this building, people care. Republicans and Democrats care. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue.”
He introduced Hunter Pageau, an articulate 7th grader who is one of 80 people in the world with Spinal Muscular Atrophy with Respiratory Distress or SMARD.
Hunter said he founded a new group called Youth Empowerment Society or YES, and he told the gathering, “While a disease may be rare, hope never should be.”
Democratic State Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, Speaker of the House, said rare disease advocacy and research needs “money and legislation to fully understand what is going on.”
“We genuinely care,” he said. “We want to be helpful.”
The Speaker introduced Greta Stifel, who has a rare cancer called neuroendocrine tumor carcinoid cancer (NET).
She told the group, “We have a set of struggles that other patients don’t have.”
She directed people to #RareLivesMatter and said, “We do matter. We need more funding, more visibility.”
Dr. Mridu Gulati, a pulmonary disorder specialist at Yale School of Medicine and chair of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Task Force to Study Rare Diseases , thanked the many, many legislators, medical experts and rare disease advocates that she and task force members have met with since February 2016.
She said the group plans to hold more meetings examining rare disease research, diagnoses, treatment and education, and the task force will make recommendations for creating a permanent group of experts to advise Connecticut’s Department of Public Health on rare diseases.