Autoimmune Diseases

The immune system is essential to survival, and even a modest decrease in immune function can leave a person susceptible to infection. But the immune system itself can also cause disease, by inappropriately attacking the body’s own organs, tissues, or cells.

More than 80 autoimmune diseases have been described to date. Some, such as type 1 diabetes, attack specific organs, while others, such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), involve multiple organs. Although many autoimmune diseases are rare, collectively they affect approximately 5 to 8 percent of the U.S. population. A disproportionate number of people with autoimmune disorders are women. For unknown reasons, the prevalence of autoimmune diseases is increasing.

SOURCE: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

What is Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune diseases result from a dysfunction of the immune system. The immune system protects you from disease and infection. Sometimes, though, the immune system can produce autoantibodies that attack healthy cells, tissues, and organs. This can lead to autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body. More than 80 autoimmune diseases have been identified. Some are relatively well known, such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, while others are rare and difficult to diagnose.

Collectively, autoimmune diseases are among the most prevalent diseases in the U.S., affecting more than 23.5 million Americans. They are more common among women, and while some are more prevalent among white people, others are more common among African-Americans and Hispanics. Autoimmune diseases are becoming increasingly prevalent, for reasons unknown.

Some autoimmune diseases are life-threatening, and most are debilitating and require a lifetime of treatment. There are treatments available to reduce the symptoms and effects from many autoimmune diseases, but cures have yet to be discovered. Since most autoimmune diseases are rare, patients can often spend years seeking a proper diagnosis.

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Addison's Disease

Your adrenal glands are just above your kidneys. The outside layer of these glands makes hormones that help your body respond to stress and regulate your blood pressure and water and salt balance. Addison’s disease occurs if the adrenal glands don’t make enough of these hormones.

A problem with your immune system usually causes Addison’s disease. The immune system mistakenly attacks your own tissues, damaging your adrenal glands.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Agammaglobulinemia

Agammaglobulinemia is an inherited disorder in which there are very low levels of protective immune system proteins called immunoglobulins. People with this disorder repeatedly develop infections.

Agammaglobulinemia is a rare disorder that mainly affects males. It is the result of a genetic abnormality that blocks the development of normal, mature immune system cells called B lymphocytes. As a result, the body produces very little (if any) immunoglobulins in the bloodstream. Immunoglobulins play a major role in the immune response, which protects against illness and infection.

Without protective immunoglobulins, people with agammaglobulinemia repeatedly develop infections. People with this disorder are particularly susceptible to bacterial infections caused by Haemophilus influenzae, pneumococci (Streptococcus pneumoniae), and staphylococci, as well as to repeated viral infections. Common sites of infection include:

  • Gastrointestinal tract
  • Lungs
  • Skin
  • Upper respiratory tract

People with this condition may have a family history of agammaglobulinemia (or another immune disorder).

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Alopecia Areata

Alopecia totalis; Alopecia universalis

Alopecia areata is a condition that causes round patches of hair loss, and can lead to total hair loss.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The cause of alopecia areata is unknown. About a fifth of people with this condition have a family history of alopecia.

Alopecia areata is thought to be an autoimmune condition. This occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue.

Alopecia areata is seen in men, women, and children. A major life event such as an illness, pregnancy, or trauma occurs before the hair loss in some, but not most patients.

Forms of alopecia include:

  • Alopecia areata – patches of hair loss, usually on the scalp, but they also can be in the beard or other areas
  • Alopecia totalis – complete loss of scalp hair
  • Alopecia universalis – total loss of all body hair
SOURCE: PubMed Health

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Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome (APS)

Antiphospholipid (AN-te-fos-fo-LIP-id) antibody syndrome (APS) is an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune disorders occur if the body’s immune system makes antibodies that attack and damage the body’s tissues or cells. Antibodies are a type of protein. The immune system usually makes these proteins to defend against infection.

In APS, the body makes antibodies that mistakenly attack phospholipids—a type of fat. Phospholipids are found in all living cells and cell membranes, including blood cells and the lining of blood vessels.

When antibodies attack phospholipids, they damage cells. This causes unwanted blood clots to form in the body’s arteries and veins. (These are the vessels that carry blood to your heart and body.)

Usually, blood clotting is a normal bodily process. Blood clots help seal small cuts or breaks on blood vessel walls. This prevents you from losing too much blood. In APS, however, too much blood clotting can block blood flow and damage the body’s organs.

SOURCE: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

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Autoimmune-Related Diseases

The following are some conditions suspected or theorized to be linked to autoimmunity or are linked to certain autoimmune diseases:

  • Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM)
  • Acute necrotizing hemorrhagic leukoencephalitis
  • Amyloidosis
  • Anti-GBM/Anti-TBM nephritis
  • Autoimmune: angioedema, aplastic anemia, dysautonomia, hepatitis, hyperlipidemia, immunodeficiency, inner ear disease (AIED), myocarditis, pancreatitis, retinopathy, thrombocytopenic purpura (ATP), thyroid disease, urticaria
  • Axonal & neuronal neuropathies
  • Balo disease
  • Bullous pemphigoid
  • Behcet’s disease
  • Bullous pemphigoid
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Castleman disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Chargas’ disease
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • (CIDP) Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
  • (CRMO) Chronic recurrent multifocal ostomyelitis
  • Churg-Strauss syndrome
  • Cryoglobulinemia
  • Dressler’s syndrome
  • Endometriosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hemolytic anemia
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Kawasaki’s Disease
  • Lambert-Eaton syndrome
  • Narcolepsy
  • P.A.N.D.A.S (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus)
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Scleroderma
Crohn's Disease

Crohn’s disease causes inflammation of the digestive system. It is one of a group of diseases called inflammatory bowel disease. The disease can affect any area from the mouth to the anus. It often affects the lower part of the small intestine called the ileum.

Crohn’s disease seems to run in some families. It can occur in people of all age groups but is most often diagnosed in young adults. Common symptoms are pain in the abdomen and diarrhea. Bleeding from the rectum, weight loss, joint pain, skin problems and fever may also occur. Children with the disease may have growth problems. Other problems can include intestinal blockage and malnutrition.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Dermatomyositis

Myositis is inflammation of your skeletal muscles, which are also called the voluntary muscles. These are the muscles you consciously control that help you move your body. An injury, infection or autoimmune disease can cause myositis.

The diseases dermatomyositis and polymyositis both involve myositis. Polymyositis causes muscle weakness, usually in the muscles closest to the trunk of your body. Dermatomyositis causes muscle weakness, plus a skin rash. Both diseases are usually treated with prednisone, a steroid medicine, and sometimes other medicines.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Devic’s Disease (Neuromyelitis Optica)

What is Neuromyelitis Optica?

Neuromyelitis optica (NMO) is an uncommon disease syndrome of the central nervous system (CNS) that affects the optic nerves and spinal cord. Individuals with NMO develop optic neuritis, which causes pain in the eye and vision loss, and transverse myelitis, which causes weakness, numbness, and sometimes paralysis of the arms and legs, along with sensory disturbances and loss of bladder and bowel control. NMO leads to loss of myelin, which is a fatty substance that surrounds nerve fibers and helps nerve signals move from cell to cell. The syndrome can also damage nerve fibers and leave areas of broken-down tissue. In the disease process of NMO, for reasons that aren’t yet clear, immune system cells and antibodies attack and destroy myelin cells in the optic nerves and the spinal cord.

Historically, NMO was diagnosed in patients who experienced a rapid onset of blindness in one or both eyes, followed within days or weeks by varying degrees of paralysis in the arms and legs. In most cases, however, the interval between optic neuritis and transverse myelitis is significantly longer, sometimes as long as several years. After the initial attack, NMO follows an unpredictable course. Most individuals with the syndrome experience clusters of attacks months or years apart, followed by partial recovery during periods of remission. This relapsing form of NMO primarily affects women. The female to male ratio is greater than 4:1. Another form of NMO, in which an individual only has a single, severe attack extending over a month or two, is most likely a distinct disease that affects men and women with equal frequency. The onset of NMO varies from childhood to adulthood, with two peaks, one in childhood and the other in adults in their 40s.

In the past, NMO was considered to be a severe variant of multiple sclerosis (MS) because both can cause attacks of optic neuritis and myelitis. Recent discoveries, however, suggest it is a separate disease. NMO is different from MS in the severity of its attacks and its tendency to solely strike the optic nerves and spinal cord at the beginning of the disease. Symptoms outside of the optic nerves and spinal cord are rare, although certain symptoms, including uncontrollable vomiting and hiccups, are now recognized as relatively specific symptoms of NMO that are due to brainstem involvement.

The recent discovery of an antibody in the blood of individuals with NMO gives doctors a reliable biomarker to distinguish NMO from MS. The antibody, known as NMO-IgG, seems to be present in about 70 percent of those with NMO and is not found in people with MS or other similar conditions.

Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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Glomerulonephritis

Glomerulonephritis is a type of kidney disease in which the part of your kidneys that helps filter waste and fluids from the blood is damaged.

Causes:

Glomerulonephritis may be caused by specific problems with the body’s immune system. Often, the precise cause of glomerulonephritis is unknown.

Damage to the glomeruli causes blood and protein to be lost in the urine.

The condition may develop quickly, with loss of kidney function occurring over weeks and months (called rapidly progressive glomerulonephritis).

In about a quarter of people with chronic glomerulonephritis there is no history of kidney disease and the disorder first appears as chronic renal failure.

The following increase your risk of developing this condition:

  • History of cancer
  • Blood or lymphatic system disorders
  • Exposure to hydrocarbon solvents
  • Infections such as strep infections, viruses, heart infections,or abscesses
  • Diabetes
SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Goodpasture's Syndrome

Goodpasture’s syndrome is a rare disease that can affect the lungs and kidneys. Also called anti-glomerular basement antibody disease, it is an autoimmune disease-a condition in which the body’s own defense system reacts against some part of the body itself. When the immune system is working normally, it creates antibodies to fight off germs. In Goodpasture’s syndrome, the immune system makes antibodies that attack the lungs and kidneys. Why this happens is not fully understood. Researchers have identified a number of possible causes, among them the presence of an inherited component; exposure to certain chemicals, including hydrocarbon solvents and the weed killer Paraquat; and viral infections.

Source: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institutes of Health (NIH)

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Graves Disease

Graves disease is an autoimmune disorder that leads to overactivity of the thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).

The thyroid gland is an important organ of the endocrine system. It is located in the front of the neck just below the voice box. This gland releases the hormones thyroxine(T4) and triiodothyronine(T3), which control body metabolism. Controlling metabolism is critical for regulating mood, weight, and mental and physical energy levels.

If the body makes too much thyroid hormone, the condition is called hyperthyroidism. (An underactive thyroidleads to hypothyroidism.)

Graves disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. It is caused by an abnormal immune system response that causes the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormones. Graves disease is most common in women over age 20. However, the disorder may occur at any age and may affect men as well.

SOURCE: PubMed Health

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Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Also called: Acute idiopathic polyneuritis, Acute inflammatory polyneuropathy, Infectious polyneuritis, Landry-Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare disorder that causes your immune system to attack your peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS nerves connect your brain and spinal cord with the rest of your body. Damage to these nerves makes it hard for them to transmit signals. As a result, your muscles have trouble responding to your brain. No one knows what causes the syndrome. Sometimes it is triggered by an infection, surgery or a vaccination.

The first symptom is usually weakness or a tingling feeling in your legs. The feeling can spread to your upper body. In severe cases, you become almost paralyzed. This is life-threatening. You might need a respirator to breathe. Symptoms usually worsen over a period of weeks, then stabilize. Most people recover. Recovery can take a few weeks to a few years. Treatment options during the symptom period include medicines or a procedure called plasma exchange.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Hashimoto's Disease

Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disorder that can cause hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid. With this disease, your immune system attacks your thyroid. The thyroid becomes damaged and can’t make enough thyroid hormones.

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck. Thyroid hormones control how your body uses energy, so they affect nearly every organ in your body—even the way your heart beats. Without enough thyroid hormones, many of your body’s functions slow down.

SOURCE: NIH - National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

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Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura

Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura is a bleeding disorder in which the immune system destroys platelets, which are necessary for normal blood clotting. Persons with the disease have too few platelets in the blood.

ITP is sometimes called immune thrombocytopenic purpura.

Causes:

ITP occurs when certain immune system cells produce antibodies against platelets. Platelets help your blood clot by clumping together to plug small holes in damaged blood vessels. The antibodies attach to the platelets. The spleen destroys the platelets that carry the antibodies.

In children, the disease sometimes follows a viral infection. In adults, it is more often a chronic (long-term) disease and can occur after a viral infection, with use of certain drugs, during pregnancy, or as part of an immune disorder.

ITP affects women more frequently than men, and is more common in children than adults. The disease affects boys and girls equally.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Lupus (SLE)

If you have lupus, your immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues by mistake. This can damage your joints, skin, blood vessels and organs. There are many kinds of lupus. The most common type, systemic lupus erythematosus, affects many parts of the body. Discoid lupus causes a rash that doesn’t go away. Subacute cutaneous lupus causes sores after being out in the sun. Another type can be caused by medication. Neonatal lupus, which is rare, affects newborns.

Anyone can get lupus, but women are most at risk. Lupus is also more common in African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women. The cause of lupus is not known.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a nervous system disease that affects your brain and spinal cord. It damages the myelin sheath, the material that surrounds and protects your nerve cells. This damage slows down or blocks messages between your brain and your body, leading to the symptoms of MS. They can include:

  • Visual disturbances
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble with coordination and balance
  • Sensations such as numbness, prickling, or “pins and needles”
  • Thinking and memory problems

No one knows what causes MS. It may be an autoimmune disease, which happens when your body attacks itself. Multiple sclerosis affects women more than men. It often begins between the ages of 20 and 40. Usually, the disease is mild, but some people lose the ability to write, speak or walk. There is no cure for MS, but medicines may slow it down and help control symptoms. Physical and occupational therapy may also help.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis interferes with messages your nerves send to your muscles. Myasthenia gravis often affects muscles in your head. Common symptoms are trouble with eye and eyelid movement, facial and swallowing. If you have myasthenia gravis, it is important to follow your treatment plan. If you do, you can expect your life to be normal or close to it.

Myasthenia gravis is caused by a problem in the transmission of nerve signals to your muscles. Normally, nerve endings release a substance that attaches to receptors on your muscles. That tells your muscles to contract. If you have myasthenia gravis, your body’s own immune system makes antibodies to block that signal.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Pemphigus/Pemphigoid

Pemphigus is an autoimmune disorder in which your antibodies attack healthy cells in your skin and mouth, causing blisters and sores. No one knows what causes this attack. Pemphigus does not spread from person to person. It does not appear to be inherited. But some people’s genes put them more at risk for pemphigus.

Pemphigoid is also an autoimmune skin disease. It leads to deep blisters that do not break easily. Pemphigoid is most common in older adults and may be fatal.

The treatment of pemphigus and pemphigoid is the same: one or more medicines. These may include:

  • Steroids, which reduce inflammation
  • Drugs that suppress the immune system response
  • Antibiotics to treat associated infections
SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health
Polymyositis

Myositis is inflammation of your skeletal muscles, which are also called the voluntary muscles. These are the muscles you consciously control that help you move your body. An injury, infection or autoimmune disease can cause myositis.

The diseases dermatomyositis and polymyositis both involve myositis. Polymyositis causes muscle weakness, usually in the muscles closest to the trunk of your body. Dermatomyositis causes muscle weakness, plus a skin rash. Both diseases are usually treated with prednisone, a steroid medicine, and sometimes other medicines.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin disease that causes itchy or sore patches of thick, red skin with silvery scales. You usually get them on your elbows, knees, scalp, back, face, palms and feet, but they can show up on other parts of your body. A problem with your immune system causes psoriasis. In a process called cell turnover, skin cells that grow deep in your skin rise to the surface. Normally, this takes a month. In psoriasis, it happens in just days because your cells rise too fast.

Psoriasis can last a long time, even a lifetime. Symptoms come and go.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of arthritis that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in your joints. It can affect any joint but is common in the wrist and fingers. More women than men get rheumatoid arthritis. It often starts between ages 25 and 55. You might have the disease for only a short time, or symptoms might come and go. The severe form can last a lifetime.

Rheumatoid arthritis is different from osteoarthritis, the common arthritis that often comes with older age. RA can affect body parts besides joints, such as your eyes, mouth and lungs. RA is an autoimmune disease, which means the arthritis results from your immune system attacking your body’s own tissues.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Sjogren’s Syndrome

Sjogren’s syndrome is a disease that causes dryness in your mouth and eyes. It can also lead to dryness in other places that need moisture, such as your nose, throat and skin. Most people who get Sjogren’s syndrome are older than 40. Nine of 10 are women. Sjogren’s syndrome is sometimes linked to rheumatic problems such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease. If you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system, which is supposed to fight disease, mistakenly attacks parts of your own body. In Sjogren’s syndrome, your immune system attacks the glands that make tears and saliva. It may also affect your joints, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, digestive organs and nerves.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Type 1 Diabetes (Juvenile Diabetes)

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease results when the body’s system for fighting infection—the immune system—turns against a part of the body. In diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The pancreas then produces little or no insulin. A person who has type 1 diabetes must take insulin daily to live.

Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5 to 10 percent of diagnosed diabetes in the United States. It develops most often in children and young adults but can appear at any age.

SOURCE: National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse

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Uveitis

Uveitis is swelling and irritation of the uvea, the middle layer of the eye. The uvea provides most of the blood supply to the retina.

Causes:

Uveitis can be caused by autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis, infection, or exposure to toxins. However, in many cases the cause is unknown.

The most common form of uveitis is anterior uveitis, which involves inflammation in the front part of the eye. It is often called iritis because it usually only affects the iris, the colored part of the eye. The inflammation may be associated with autoimmune diseases, but most cases occur in healthy people. The disorder may affect only one eye. It is most common in young and middle-aged people.

Posterior uveitis affects the back part of the uvea, and involves primarily the choroid, a layer of blood vessels and connective tissue in the middle part of the eye. This type of uveitis is called choroiditis. If the retina is also involved, it is called chorioretinitis. You may develop this condition if you have had a body-wide (systemic) infection or if you have an autoimmune disease.

Another form of uveitis is pars planitis. This inflammation affects the narrowed area (pars plana) between the colored part of the eye (iris) and the choroid. Pars planitis usually occurs in young men and is generally not associated with any other disease. However, some evidence suggests it may be linked to Crohn’s disease and possibly multiple sclerosis.

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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Vitiligo

Vitiligo causes white patches on your skin. It can also affect your eyes, mouth and nose. It occurs when the cells that give your skin its color are destroyed. No one knows what destroys them. It is more common in people with autoimmune diseases, and it might run in families. It usually starts before age 40.

The white patches are more common where your skin is exposed to the sun. In some cases, the patches spread. Vitiligo can cause your hair to gray early. If you have dark skin, you may lose color inside your mouth

SOURCE: MedlinePlus- A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health

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