Malvika Shroff Image Credit: VIRENDRSA SAKLANI/Gulf News

Authors seem to be getting younger and younger, a fact that would have had the venerable George Bernard Shaw tugging at his white beard in astonishment.

Meet Malvika Shroff, who is only 17, has a book to her credit — and the venture is for altruistic reasons. She has written it for the Emirates Arthritis Foundation (EAF) to build awareness about the debilitating disease. The American student has taken time off from her busy curriculum to help raise funds for the EAF, which depends on the community to continue functioning.

Her book, You Thought Your Life Sucked, features the real-life stories of nine people from different age groups and racial backgrounds who are afflicted with arthritis.

Witness to the suffering

How did she come upon this crippling disease as a subject for her book? "I saw my grandmother suffer and now my aunt has lupus [another form of the disease] at a very young age. The cancer-awareness programme has been successful and millions are raised for the cause but this illness gets lost in the shadows.

"I am passionate about writing. In fact, I plan to make it a career. Once I started researching the subject and getting to know more patients, I was moved by their plight. Besides, a community has to support a foundation that has been set up for their welfare."

Adding information about the Foundation was Katrina Thornely, 27, the patient support director, who has been on the board of the EAF since it was set up in 2006. She now works there full-time. "I am involved with various fundraising activities, events, walkathons, tai chi and yoga classes. One of our first cases was a gardener on a salary of Dh800 who needed immediate and ongoing medication priced at Dh7,000 a month. We helped raise funds and arrange treatment for him," she said.

Thornley has had arthritis since she was 2 years old and had to undergo treatment on a regular basis. "As a child in the UK, I noticed that all the patients were old, so I was the odd one out. Now I find that arthritis sufferers come from all age groups. It has been terrific working with the EAF, as it gives one a feeling of satisfaction being able to help others in the same state of distress."

She mentioned that she has had four surgical procedures, including wrist replacement. "In 2000, a new medication was approved, which is very expensive yet is able to arrest the spread of the disease — but not cure it. That has given considerable relief to many. However, getting insurance companies to approve of this expensive medicine is a problem; we end up in many debates!"

Dr Humeira Badsha of the Al Biraa Arthritis and Bone Clinic, a consultant rheumatologist and founding member of the Emirates Arthritis Foundation, said an ageing population in many parts of the world is adding to the number of arthritis patients and with their growing numbers, more attention is being paid to the treatment.

"There is a lot more awareness — October 12 has been declared World Arthritis Day. We have much more media coverage now, yet a great deal more should be done to help sufferers," Badsha said.

What triggers this disease? "It could be environmental, stress or even childbirth. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the cell lining inside the joint. It is a chronic, potentially disabling disease that causes joint pain, stiffness, swelling and loss of joint function," Badsha said.

But there is hope for patients. She related the story of a 30-year-old nurse who was so badly afflicted that she could not pick up her newborn baby. But with the right medication, she was even able to get back to work.

"Normally, 20 per cent of the population has one of the 1,000 kinds of arthritis," Badsha said. "There is a 50 per cent increased risk of death due to cardiovascular disease in patients with rheumatoid arthritis."

The UAE count

Arthritis has more than 200 variations but there are two key categories: Non-inflammatory arthritis, such as osteoarthritis — caused by daily wear-and-tear of the joints — and inflammatory, or autoimmune arthritis. This is when the body's immune system attacks itself and causes inflammation of major organs. Despite an estimated 20 per cent of the UAE suffering from some form of arthritis, many go undiagnosed. People of any age can be affected, including children. A diagnosis can be made as early as 6 months old.