Teachers may be more at risk for autoimmune diseases

Sunday, October 21, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Could something about teaching -- perhaps the years of contact with kids and their germs -- increase the risk of serious immune system diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus?

A new study suggests it might, backing the theory that if someone is genetically susceptible to a certain disease, environment could trigger the onset.

University of Connecticut researchers who examined 11 years of death certificates found that deaths from some autoimmune diseases among K-12 teachers were more than twice as high as those of people in other professions.

Autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are caused when the body's immune system goes awry and attacks its own tissue.

The diseases are rare, and even the higher death rates among teachers are relatively low, considering other causes of death.

"We didn't publish the study to scare people," said researcher Stephen J. Walsh, a co-author.

Infections as triggers

Still, finding occupations that seem to have a higher risk may help scientists pin down just what environmental triggers play a role in these little-understood diseases.

Dr. Joel Rose, director of the Autoimmune Disease Research Center at Johns Hopkins University, said more research is required on the link, but called Walsh's study "extremely important work."

"The article sort of implies that infection may be the important component," he said.

The study, published this summer in The Journal of Rheumatology, supports the theory that infections may act as triggers for people genetically susceptible to autoimmune diseases by revving up an immune system reaction. Rheumatic fever, for instance, is associated with a streptococcus infection. The causes of most autoimmune diseases aren't known.

Teachers who died between the ages of 35 and 44 were twice as likely to die of complications from autoimmune diseases. Among high school teachers of that age, the rate was even higher.

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