Aching backs, hands and hip joints are only ever found in the elderly, right? Arthritis is certainly often dismissed as a disease that only afflicts older people, the assumption being that as a degenerative joint disease, it only plagues those northwards of a certain age. But that's not so, says Katrina Thornely, the British Patient Support Director of the Emirates Arthritis Foundation, who is currently on a push to raise awareness for the foundation following its recent move into a new home at Dubai's Al Biraa Bone and Joint Clinic.
Katrina herself is a life-long sufferer of a particular strain of the disease - chronic juvenile arthritis, or JCA. "I'm not an old person; I've had it since I was two," she explains from her bright new office on Al Wasl Road. "And then people say 'So what's the big deal? It only affects your fingers,' and you then have to reply 'Well actually, it can stop you walking, put you in a wheelchair and leave you bedridden.'"
Now 28, Thornely has suffered severely with her arthritis. Her mother realised something was up when Thornely was a toddler and struggled to crawl, so she took her to a doctor, and from there to a consultant. Thornely was diagnosed with JCA, but it seemed to go into remission for several years. She returned to the doctor again, however, when she was nine with renewed pain in her wrists and with problems being able to straighten her arms. The disease also affected the development of her jaw, which she says caused a "very round and chubby face" and so meant bullying at school.
Since then, Thornely has had the bones in her feet fused to help her improve her mobility, her wrists fused with titanium, and she remains on heavy medication - anti-inflammatories, biologic drugs that work by blocking the arthritic degeneration further, and ibuprofen to dull the pain. Not that you'd know any of this from Thornely's irrepressibly sunny demeanour. Anyone trying to raise awareness about arthritis, however, has had a tough time doing so during the recession. Dr Humeira Badsha, one of the Biraa clinic's doctors and an arthritis specialist, says that 20 per cent of people in the UAE suffer some form of arthritis, and there are approximately 100 types among them. The most common is osteoarthritis, which affects primarily older adults, whereas JCA is much rarer.
Thornely, for one, is hoping that recent attention in the celebrity press about the disease may help spur people on to greater understanding and support. The revelation came from none other than Lady Gaga, who said in an interview with The Times in May that she had tested "borderline positive" for lupus, a particular type of arthritis that damages the autoimmune system and doesn't only affect joints, but can also cause skin rashes, mouth ulcers, hair loss, eye problems and, in the most extreme cases, organ failure.
Thornely says she's hoping that Gaga's forthrightness will help to raise much-needed funds (it can cost up to Dh85,000 for a year's worth of drugs per patient) and awareness about arthritis in general. Apart from trying to stamp out ignorance of the condition, Thornely is concerned with general day-to-day events for the foundation. They hold weekly yoga sessions ("We encourage patients to be active; if you don't use it, you lose it," she says with a smile), and regular coffee mornings for those who attend the clinic.
"It can be frustrating," she says. "Sometimes you get one person showing up, sometimes 15." But optimistic as ever, she says the hope is to hold a larger fundraising event towards the end of this year. It's a cause that deserves much support. For more information on arthritis, visit the Emirates Arthritis Foundation website at www.arthritis.ae.