A study by the Emirates Arthritis Foundation (Eaf) found those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis wait at least 14 months to see a specialist after experiencing symptoms of the condition, such as swelling and inflammation of the joints.
Women are three times more likely than men to be affected by it.
“It is a lack of awareness of the disease. A lot of people are unaware they should see a rheumatologist so may go to different types of doctors,” says Dr Humeira Badsha, the founding member of Eaf.
“They are not even aware there is such a thing as a rheumatologist.”
Dr Badsha says early treatment is crucial. If left undiagnosed, rheumatoid arthritis can lead to disability and deformity.
“We really want to catch people early because, when damage sets in, we can not reverse it,” she says. “It can be extremely destructive. If left untreated people can be completely disabled.
“So we need to see patients within the first three months of onset to get control of the disease and prevent deformities.”
Another Eaf survey found that when patients finally do see a rheumatologist, many refuse to take medicine because they are afraid of the side effects, said Dr Badsha.
“Here the people seem to be not so compliant with taking medication. They would rather take pain than take medication and the problem is, that pain leads to deformity.”
Side-effects for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, for example, may include stomach irritation, heart problems and liver and kidney damage, while steroids can cause weight gain and diabetes.
Side-effects of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs vary but may include liver damage.
Others sufferers fear taking the medication when they are pregnant, says Dr Badsha.
The study found others did not take medication because they could not afford it. Insurance policies do not universally cover treatment.
There is no UAE-specific data but the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis in the GCC is about 1 per cent of the population.
“It even effects young people, so if a young working person gets this disease, it affects a whole family – it does not just affect the person,” says Dr Badsha.
“If a mother gets disabled and she is in pain and her joins are swollen she cannot take care of her child. It really impacts on families a lot.”
The doctor, a Singaporean who moved to the UAE nine years ago, says with early diagnosis and proper disease management, it is possible for those with rheumatoid arthritis to lead normal lives.
The condition can be managed with a combination of oral drugs and injections.
Updated: June 12, 2014 04:00 AM