Allie Guerino was just 9 years old when she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. After suffering with extreme swelling in her joints, her family initially thought it would take months to get an appointment because of the shortage of pediatric rheumatologists. Anxious to get his daughter quick treatment, Allie’s father sent an email to the colleagues at his law firm and got a recommendation for Dr. Ankur Kamdar, a pediatric rheumatologist with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth who is affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. Dr. Kamdar was able to see Allie within a week.
“While most of these kids are able to live a fulfilling life, including continuing to play competitive sports, they do so with a fairly intense treatment regimen,” said Dr. Kamdar. “Many have to take infusions, shots and medications every day, just to be able to move.”
Often a misunderstood and misdiagnosed illness, idiopathic arthritis strikes tens of thousands of children like Allie each year, who struggle with the aches and pains of juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and they often do so in silence.
That’s because most people have never heard of juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Defined as joint swelling, or limited range of motion of a joint, it strikes children under the age of 16. Many wrongly assume that arthritis is an old person’s disease, but it really can affect all age ranges. In the United States alone, nearly 300,000 children have been diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
The month of July is dedicated to raising more awareness about a disease that has failed to get much attention over the years, despite being one of the most common chronic conditions affecting pediatric patients.
Part of the problem is labs and imaging are often normal, in the setting of juvenile arthritis, said Dr. Kamdar, who was honored in March by the Houston chapter of the Arthritis Foundation as their 2016 “Medical Honoree.”
“There are significant differences between arthritis in adults and children, ” Dr. Kamdar said. “Some children go months without a diagnosis. Others go years.”
However, a child who is limping on a regular basis, or suffering from pain and swelling of any joint, should be evaluated by a doctor.
Thanks to a specialized treatment regimen prescribed by Dr. Kamdar, Allie, who recently completed sixth grade, continues to lead an active lifestyle, playing basketball, field hockey and softball. She joined Dr. Kamdar at the Arthritis Foundation fundraiser in March, earning recognition as the group’s 2016 “Youth Honoree.”
“I hope to raise awareness that kids get arthritis and it makes a big impact on their lives,” she said.
Dr. Kamdar has also been doing his part to raise awareness about the disease and bolster interest in an underrepresented specialty, working urgently to encourage more doctors to consider careers in pediatric rheumatology. He first recognized the shortage that plagued Allie’s parents during his pediatric training, noting that there weren’t enough doctors to see the number of children diagnosed each year with juvenile arthritis.
“There are very few pediatric rheumatologists like myself whose careers are dedicated to helping children in these positions,” Dr. Kamdar said. “As the associate program director of the general pediatrics residency program at McGovern Medical School, I’m actively trying to educate future doctors and health professionals so that they are better equipped to care for patients of all ages suffering with rheumatic disease.”
There is no known cure for juvenile idiopathic arthritis but early intervention is key. Children who receive medical treatment early can avoid serious, permanent damage to their young joints, and continue to enjoy an active childhood.