Vasculitis: The disease behind the slow, painful death of comedian Harold Ramis
Condition leaves arteries leaked, blocked or broken
Harold Ramis, a movie comic that filled many people's live with laughter and joy dies a slow, painful death from a disease that continues to battle the medical community. Vasculitis is described as a condition that turns on the body's network of veins and arteries. According to the National Institutes of Health, vasculitis makes blood vessels inflamed, restricting the flow of blood or cutting it off entirely.
The last four years of Harold Ramis' life were painful and difficult ones, as he was diagnosed with vasculitis, a misunderstood condition that attacks the body's arteries.
"Basically, the arteries can be leaking, they can be blocked or broken, and that all causes problems," Dr. Peter Merkel, a rheumatologist and director of the Penn Vasculitis Center at the University of Pennsylvania medical school says. "If you interrupt the blood supply, whatever organ or tissue is being supplied downstream is unhappy."
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The director of "Caddyshack," "National Lampoon's Vacation" and "Groundhog Day," co-writer of "National Lampoon's Animal House" and co-star of "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters," Ramis this week at the age of 69, four years after contracting the condition.
The cause of Ramis' death has been officially as complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. It's "not a term that physicians would routinely use" and doesn't identify which of the more than 15 identified variants of vasculitis that Ramis had, Merkel says.
More than 200,000 people in the U.S. suffer from the condition, Merkel says -- "but if you add them all up together, it's not rare, and chances are everybody knows somebody, directly or indirectly, that is affected.
"Some of the manifestations are painful or very debilitating," he said. In Ramis' case, he suffered an infection that led to complications and forced him to relearn to walk.
Even worse, since vasculitis' symptoms mimic those of other diseases, it can often be misdiagnosed or missed altogether. The causes are largely unknown.
"We have some hints for most types of vasculitis," Merkel said. "Drugs or medications can cause it. Some infections can lead to vasculitis, such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C. But for the majority of patients of vasculitis, we don't know the cause. We're doing a lot of research to try to find it out."
Treatments usually involve steroids and "chemotherapy-like" drugs. Vasculitis is the subject of a great deal of federal and privately backed research, and treatments "are much better than they were," Merkel added.
"We are making a lot of progress in treating this disease," he said.
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