Karen Garloch

Rare immune deficiency leaves Charlotte-area woman at risk for infections

It took years for Lauren Dunlap to find out why she was getting sick all the time.

In her 20s, she frequently contracted pneumonia and other bacterial infections that required treatment with antibiotics and sometimes sent her to the hospital. Once she coughed so hard she cracked a rib. Her body became resistant to 13 antibiotics because she took them so often.

About five years ago, she was finally referred to an immunologist, Dr. Maeve O’Connor of Allergy Asthma & Immunology Relief of Charlotte. She diagnosed Dunlap with primary immunodeficiency, a family of more than 200 disorders in which part of the body’s immune system is missing or functions improperly.

“That girl was sick,” O’Connor said. Dunlap brought a 2-inch-thick medical record with single-spaced pages listing the hundreds of rounds of antibiotics she’d been prescribed over the years. The doctor wondered: “Why didn't somebody stop and say, ‘Hey wait a minute.’ 

Blood tests showed Dunlap was lacking antibodies to fight off disease. Although there is no cure for this problem, therapy allows patients to live healthy, productive lives. Now 32, Dunlap gets infusions of immunoglobulin, an antibody-rich substance made from donated blood plasma. The treatment takes about five hours every three weeks in O’Connor’s office.

Dunlap still gets sick sometimes, but “she’s got her life back,” O’Connor said.

Now the doctor and patient are working together to raise awareness of the disorder by organizing the first Charlotte Walk for Primary Immunodeficiency Oct. 24 at Freedom Park.

Dunlap got the idea after attending another walk sponsored by the national Immune Deficiency Foundation last year in Chicago. On the way home to York, S.C., she decided Charlotte should have a walk too. She contacted the foundation and has been making plans for a year while also working three jobs.

“Nobody really knows about these diseases,” Dunlap said. “They often go undiagnosed for such a long period of time. I would like for other people not to suffer so long.”

The Immune Deficiency Foundation uses the zebra as its logo because of a well-known saying among doctors. “When you hear hoof prints,” the saying goes, “think of horses, not zebras.” It’s a warning not to arrive at some exotic diagnosis when a more common explanation is likely.

But the focus on common problems means rare diseases often go undetected. “It’s a matter of knowing what to look for,” O’Connor said.

People who get sick more than a couple of times a year should think about getting tested, O’Connor said. “If you’re having two or more sinus infections a year, if you’re having more than two pneumonias in a year, if you’ve needed IV antibiotics to clear up an infection …that’s not normal.”

Walk for Primary Immunodeficiency

Oct. 24, Freedom Park

8:30 a.m. registration, 10 a.m. walk starts

Register: www.walkforPI.org