By Joe Tash
More than one million Americans — and thousands of San Diego County residents — suffer from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, two painful conditions that cause chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
The local chapter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, part of a nationwide organization dedicated to funding research into the conditions and providing support to patients, raises about $1 million per year for the cause, said Carly Bazzett, the San Diego chapter’s executive director and a local resident.
According to Bazzett, the conditions are often “silent” diseases, because people are embarrassed to talk about them. They can cause diarrhea, bleeding, cramps and fatigue, and many patients must take drugs with serious side effects or undergo surgery. No cure exists for either condition, both of which fall under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel diseases.
“It’s like the worst stomach flu you’ve ever had and it doesn’t go away,” she said.
The local chapter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation holds a number of fundraising events each year, and also helps patients and their families through educational forums, support groups and other services.
One annual event coming up this weekend is the Take Steps two-mile walk, which is both a fundraising event and a chance for patients and families to get together for a fun and relaxing afternoon. This year’s event will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, at NTC Park in San Diego’s Liberty Station development.
Those interested in signing up for the walk or donating can visit www.cctakesteps.org, or call (619) 497-1300.
Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease each affect between 600,000 and 700,000 people in the United States, said Dr. Bill Sandborn, chief of gastroenterology at the UC San Diego Health System, and a member of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation board.
Bazzett said an estimated 14,000 people suffer from the two illnesses in San Diego County.
While there is likely a genetic factor in the conditions — people whose close relatives have been diagnosed with Crohn’s or colitis are more likely to get it themselves — other environmental factors such as eating a diet with a lot of meat or processed foods may also figure into the equation, Sandborn said.
In the United States, the number of cases went up in the 1960s and 1970s, then stabilized for a couple of decades. “Now in the last 10 years it’s going up again and we don’t know why,” Sandborn said.
Safe drugs with relatively low side effects work for about half of the colitis patients, while the others need either drugs that do cause side effects, or surgery. A larger percentage of Crohn’s patients need to take medication that causes side effects to treat their disease, Sandborn said.
One factor in both colitis and Crohn’s is smoking, although the effect is opposite: smoking increases the likelihood of getting Crohn’s, but it reduces the chances of getting ulcerative colitis. Nicotine patches help some colitis patients, Sandborn said.
Research is needed to find better treatments for both conditions, he said.
Nationally, the foundation is funding nearly 200 different research projects related to Crohn’s and colitis, with 10 of those projects located at San Diego County research facilities, Bazzett said.
The organization raises the majority of its funds through private donations and fund-raising events, such as Saturday’s two-mile walk.
Other events are planned for later this year. In September, the foundation will host a triathlon to raise money for research and patient support, and a flag football tournament — complete with former NFL players — will be held in October at Qualcomm Stadium.
Services are provided by the foundation to patients and their families at little or no cost, and 80 percent of funds raised goes directly into research, support or education, Bazzett said.
“We do believe we will have cures in our lifetime,” she said.
For more information, visit www.ccfa.org; www.ccteamchallenge.org; www.ccfa.org/chapters/sandiego/