Area congresswoman focuses on autoimmune diseases

Aug 20, 2012

Representative Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) introduced legislation in Congress this week that puts the spotlight on autoimmune diseases. The Syracuse area congresswoman has a personal reason for wanting to boost awareness of these illnesses that range from multiple sclerosis to rheumatoid arthritis.


Buerkle's sister, Mary Colella, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in high school.

"I know personally the impact the disease had on Mary's life.  She died in 1991, after being a quadriplegic for 20 years," said Buerkle.

The Mary Colella Autoimmune Awareness Act will resurrect a committee that coordinates autoimmune research across several federal agencies, to bring the latest information on these diseases to the public and medical community.  

"They're all doing research, they're all looking at autoimmune diseases, but no one's consolidating it.  The HHS (Health and Human Services) Committee has not been active. So this recreates an interdepartmental committee so they can consolidate their information and make sure it gets to health are providers," Buerkle said.

Autoimmune diseases range from MS to celiac disease to rheumatoid arthritis, happening when a person's immune system attacks healthy cells.  

Annette Simiele of Multiple Sclerosis Resources in Onondaga County says more attention to these diseases is welcome in this region, especially because it is a hotbed for multiple sclerosis.

"There has been some research in the vitamin D issue.  Are we deficient in D so much it's causing these autoimmune diseases?  We certainly have a lack of sunlight in central New York, so there could be some credibility to that," said Simiele. "But there has to be something else going on. There has to be an environmental trigger."  

The million dollar program would be paid for with funds already in the Centers for Disease Control budget.

An autoimmune condition results when a person's immune system causes their body to attack healthy cells.  There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases, including lupus, Type 1 diabetes and psoriasis. Researchers believe they afflict as many as 32 million Americans, more women than men.

Buerkle is running for re-election against Democrat Dan Maffei in November.