Rare Disease Day 2020: Lawmakers Hear From Advocates

 In Blog

Rare disease patients, caregivers, advocates, researchers, doctors, healthcare providers and lawmakers gathered at Connecticut’s capitol in Hartford on Friday, Feb. 28, to celebrate Rare Disease Day 2020 and raise awareness because rare medical conditions often are overlooked by health-policy decision makers and the medical community. 

Men and women gathered at a lecturn to speak about rare disease.

CT Rare Disease Day at the state Capitol in Hartford. Photo courtesy NORD.

The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) and its Rare Action Network (RAN) organized the event for Rare Disease Day, celebrated nationally and in more than 85 countries. Click here for information on your state’s events, RAN and Rare Disease Day.

A disease is defined as rare in the United States if it affects fewer than 200,000 Americans. As many as 7,000 rare diseases exist nationally, affecting 1 in 10 people. Between 25 million and 30 million Americans live with a rare disease, including about 300,000 in Connecticut alone. 

Sofia Sees Hope, based in Ledyard, Conn., gave information to legislators on the Connecticut General Assembly’s Public Health Committee, letting them know that rare disease advocates and those living with a rare disease, such as Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) and other rare inherited retinal diseases (IRDs), need state and federal support in crafting legislation to help the rare disease community. 

Awareness helps research

We wanted to impress upon the committee that dedicated, grassroots attention and awareness to specific rare diseases generate incredible results in finding cures and treatments. Children living with visual impairment now can regain their vision through a ground-breaking retinal medicine called LUXTURNA

The legislators learned that for six years Sofia Sees Hope has been generating awareness, supporting affected families and raising funds to advance research for diagnosis, treatments and cures for blindness caused by LCA and other IRDs, such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP). 

Here’s our legislative statement in its entirety: 

LCA is characterized by severe vision loss at birth. While some children are born with little or no vision, others may have significant vision loss in the first few years of life, stable vision for a period, and then eventually complete vision loss as the retina deteriorates into total blindness.

The optimal window for reversing vision loss is during the early phase of the disease. Creating avenues to affordable treatments and accessibility to resources is imperative and often can be inhibited by insurance regulations and other rules limiting access to help and support patients.

More than 25 genes are associated with LCA and a mutation in just one of these can result in blindness. The rare disease occurs in 1 in 33,000 to 1 in 88,000 people and makes up 5 percent of all retinal dystrophies. Twenty percent of children with visual impairment and attending special schools have LCA; it is the second most common inherited retinal dystrophy after retinitis pigmentosa.

A patient needs a confirmed genetic diagnosis to proceed with appropriate treatment avenues. Sofia Sees Hope has given more than $100,000 to provide families, including those in Connecticut, free access to genetic testing and has directed $275,000 to genetic retinal research. Patients also need support from their lawmakers to ensure they receive the quality of life to which they are deserving.

After decades of research and dedicated investment in studies, scientists created a breakthrough genetic therapy that helps restore vision in patients with one of the genetic mutations causing LCA. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017 approved this treatment – developed by Spark Therapeutics and called LUXTURNA – which also is the first genetic therapy ever in the United States to treat ANY rare inherited disease.

LCA patients treated with LUXTURNA experienced dramatic changes in their lives with greatly improved or restored vision. Children who are 5, 6, 7 years old and have been treated with LUXTURNA view life in a new light in big and little ways. They now can see rainbows in the sky and stars shining at night.

Our lawmakers need to know that we fully support the principle that all FDA-approved treatments should be made available to all those who will benefit from such treatment, and to reject any proposed requirements restricting access to medications.

Sofia Sees Hope also encourages the Connecticut General Assembly to establish a Rare Disease Advisory Council comprised of patients, patient advocates, doctors, researchers and community members to address the emerging public health priority of rare diseases, including LCA.

Activism leads to legislation

More than 20 people – legislators, patient advocates, patients, caregivers, researchers, doctors and businesspeople – spoke during the morning event to a crowd gathered in the second-floor atrium of Connecticut’s Legislative Office Building. 

Jean Kelly, co-founder of Brian’s Hope, spoke on behalf of her son, Brian, and others with Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), an x-linked metabolic disorder that destroys myelin, the protective sheath that surrounds the brain’s neurons – the nerve cells that allow us to think and to control our muscles. She and her husband are 24/7 caregivers of Brian who was diagnosed at age 6 and is now 31. Their son can hear but he cannot speak, see or walk. She advocated for more help for parents who must devote their lives to caring for their children. She and her husband advocated for mandatory ALD newborn screening in Connecticut, which was passed into law in 2013.  

Laura Morris from the state’s Office of Health Strategy thanked legislators for the passage 10 years ago of a law requiring health insurance coverage for wound care for people like her daughter, who lived with Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), a group of rare genetic conditions that result in easy blistering of the skin and mucous membranes. 

A host of other speakers talked about dealing with enormous monthly bills, tangles over insurance coverage and the overwhelming stress on rare disease patients and caregivers.

NORD Director of State Policy Heidi Ross, in a statement from the organization’s President and CEO Peter L. Saltonstall, told the group:

“The purpose of Rare Disease Day is to bring patients and advocates together to articulate with one voice the shared message that millions of people around the world are suffering with unmet medical needs and need help. Our patients need earlier diagnosis; safe, effective treatments; and assured access to medical care and other services …

“There are events like ours today taking place in state capitol buildings across the nation, where elected officials are meeting with patient advocates to better understand what life is like with a rare disease, and how health care decisions they make at the state level – on issues such as newborn screening, medical insurance, cost-sharing and (specially formulated) medical foods – have a major impact” on those living with a rare disease.

Saltonstall’s statement ended with NORD’s credo:

“Alone we are rare. Together we are strong.”

Yes, we are.