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Eight-year-old Mustafa Atef playing in a park near his family's home in Sharjah.
Paulo Vecina
Eight-year-old Mustafa Atef playing in a park near his family's home in Sharjah.

'I am an average boy now'

It took six months for Mustafa Atef to be diagnosed with arthritis, during which time he changed from a lively five-year-old into a sad little boy unable to play with his friends. When the pain first started in Mustafa's legs and his joints began to swell, his parents never even considered the possibility it would be the same disease that afflicted his grandmother. "My legs hurt in the morning," said Mustafa. "I could not walk so my sister helped. She took my bag and she took me to school. My sister helped me walk."

A rare form of arthritis, affecting as few as 0.5 per cent of children in the world, was finally confirmed by doctors in Egypt three years ago. The disease can be debilitating for anyone, but it is especially difficult for a young boy whose social life revolves around the playground and who is sometimes confined to his bed. "I am the only boy in my class with arthritis. I am sometimes embarrassed. I could not play football," said Mustafa, who was unable to attend school for a year.

The treatment he receives twice a week has improved his mobility and reduced the pain, but his future remains uncertain. While some children grow out of the disease, doctors cannot tell if Mustafa will be one of the lucky ones. His mother says that he is proud of himself now. Even though he gets tired of receiving shots twice a week, he is very brave about it. "The arthritis was in my leg but now I don't have pain. I go to school in the morning by myself. It is nice to go to school alone."

His life on the playground has also improved. Where once he asked his friends to carry his bags, now he asks them to pass him the ball. "I was so happy the first time I played football with my friends again. I am on the football team. I play middle field." But there is one aspect of his new life that he is most excited about: "I am an average boy now." * The National

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