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The Wilderness of Rare Genetic Diseases and the Parents Navigating It – The New York Times

Posted: July 7, 2020 at 4:45 pm

A confirmed diagnosis may take time.

Diagnosis represents the first step on this rare disease journey. Sometimes doctors will notice something off about the child during a newborn screening, and a genetic test will identify a known mutation in the DNA. But not all conditions are so quickly detected, and it can take several years for parents to get a confirmed diagnosis.

About half of all children never get that far, according to Marshall Summar, M.D., the director of the Rare Disease Institute at Childrens National Hospital in Washington, D.C. When you sequence someones DNA, you are going to find a lot of changes, Dr. Summar said. Figuring out which change might be the one that is causing it is a tremendous challenge.

Genetic counselors warn parents beforehand that they may not get a definitive answer as to what condition their child could have. They may have to check back each year. Dr. Summar estimates that between five and 10 new rare diseases are described in the scientific literature every week, making it challenging for the medical field to keep up.

Meanwhile, the realization that a child may have a debilitating, lifelong condition weighs heavily. Some parents, particularly mothers, blame themselves, said Lemuel Pelentsov, Ph.D., a nurse who studies the needs of rare disease families at the University of South Australia, in Adelaide. In a 2016 study by Dr. Pelentsov and his colleagues, about 40 percent of the 300 rare parents surveyed reported being treated for depression and an equal number for anxiety. One of the things they do to combat that, he said, is get very invested in the childs disease.

When parents reach out to other parents, they are not simply looking for emotional support or advice. They are rebuilding a social life, one that will revolve around their childs disease. Many rare diseases have their own support groups. Global Genes is an umbrella group that supports 600 disease-specific foundations, as well as parents of children whose diseases are so rare they have no foundation.

We encourage folks to work together, said Kimberly Haugstad, the organizations executive director whose son has a rare form of hemophilia, a condition in which the blood doesnt clot normally. The parent is going to come from such different places in their own walk of life.

Each year, Global Genes hosts a Rare Boot Camp to mentor and teach parents how to set up a nonprofit, create patient registries and fund research. After attending the boot camp, the Van Wyks and other parents founded GACI Global, an organization that connects families affected by GACI, along with medical professionals.

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The Wilderness of Rare Genetic Diseases and the Parents Navigating It - The New York Times

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