In Portugal it is estimated that five percent of the population suffers from some form of autoimmune disease, where many of these cases go undiagnosed.

“There are people who can go their entire life without being diagnosed, often because an illness may be in remission or because symptoms have never been severe enough to worry the patient,” explained Dr Carlos Carneiro, an Internal Medicine specialist at the HPA Health Group and coordinator of the Out-Patient Consultation for autoimmune diseases. He is also widely recognised for his work in the field.

What are autoimmune diseases?

It is important to firstly understand just exactly what are autoimmune diseases. “These are diseases where the human body attacks itself. There are theories that consider autoimmune diseases to occur when one’s body is unable to differentiate between what is part of it and what is not.”

There is also nothing standard about an autoimmune disease. Symptoms often appear during key moments in life, such as before or after pregnancy when the body undergoes significant changes. However, they can also appear due to an infection or when the immune system is weaker, or may simply appear overnight.

Very little was known on autoimmune diseases until recently and so far, about 100 autoimmune diseases have been identified. Diagnosing an autoimmune disease can be very difficult due to the fact that symptoms can be hard to identify and only an autoimmune specialist is able to reach a diagnosis.

Of the approximately 100 known autoimmune diseases, the most common are rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis. However according to Dr Carlos Carneiro, who has near to 7,000 patients coming to him for autoimmune consultations, an autoimmune disease can affect a wide range of organs and systems.

Frequent Symptoms

Despite the wide range of different autoimmune diseases, it is however possible to establish a common thread that may be able to help in the diagnosis and treatment.

“The most common symptoms are pain in the joints and skin blemishes often found on the face, but there are other symptoms which may be experienced without one realising their importance. A dry mouth, dry eyes, unusual tiredness or sudden swelling which may be associated with blood circulation in the toes and fingers. Symptoms such as these, combined with repeated episodes of infection can also be an indicator that further investigation is required to exclude the possibility of an autoimmune disease,” refers Dr Carlos Carneiro.

Unfortunately, sometimes symptoms can be harder to connect. “Some autoimmune diseases, for example, instead of manifesting themselves with the symptoms mentioned above, present different symptoms such as recurrent miscarriages. In some cases, an autoimmune disease is the cause of the phenomena”, said Dr Carlos Carneiro.

With such a broad range of symptoms and illnesses the best solution is to seek the advice of a specialist. At the HPA Health Group, they have a specific department dedicated to autoimmune diseases headed and coordinated by Dr Carlos Carneiro.

“At the moment, HPA stands out as one of the country's autoimmunity centres. We have three doctors who are totally dedicated to this area, one of whom works with children”, refers the doctor who alone monitors about 7,000 patients diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Biological treatments

The HPA autoimmune consultation is certified by the Ministry of Health and DGS and patients are able to access state-of-the-art biological medication that can be obtained from any state hospital cost free.

Simply put, with this innovative treatment it is possible to slowdown the progression of the disease, rather than just reducing its symptoms.

“Biological treatment uses drugs that act directly on the progression, modifying that part of the disease. We go almost to the molecule so that the progression of the disease is treated and not its symptoms”, says Dr Carlos Carneiro.

Combining experience with the most innovative treatment available on the market and a multidisciplinary team, seems to be a successful approach.

“We must not limit the control of autoimmune diseases to medicines alone. When we talk about treatment we are not just talking about pharmacological treatment, the approach must be multidisciplinary; taking into account quality of life, physical exercise and nutrition. The patient must be seen as a whole, where pharmacological treatment is only one of these components”, he told The Portugal News.

In addition, HPA also conducts medical research on autoimmune diseases with the aim of contributing to a greater awareness of both healthcare professionals and patients, on the phenomenon of autoimmune diseases.

"We have research articles to be published, in addition to all the activities that we develop, specifically for health professionals, including our ‘podcast autoimmune 2021', alongside other projects that bring together health professionals and patients,” concluded the doctor.