Why We All Need to 'Think Zebras' When Encountering Rare Disorders


“Hear hoofbeats? Think zebras.”

I don’t know where that phrase originated in the rare disease community, but I love it. If we are going to take this even further, I am probably a zebra with extremely funky and unique stripes as I’ve managed to get myself a collection of unrelated rare diseases.

Thinking zebras is important for the Moebius syndrome community. Individuals with Moebius syndrome and their families have to be innovative, think outside of the box to problem solve difficulties and develop the mentality that being a metaphorical zebra is OK.

Thinking zebras is important for me, and for others living with rare diseases. Life with rare diseases oftentimes necessitates ingenuity, creativity and adaptability. To be able to think outside the box when one hears the metaphorical hoofbeats is crucial for quality of life.

Thinking zebras is important for the community when encountering rare disorders. There are more than 7,000 rare disorders, with advanced genomics discovering even more disorders every day. I personally don’t fault anyone for not knowing about all of them, but hope for kindness, empathy and support for those of us with rare diseases.

Thinking zebras is important for the health care community, especially for rare diseases where there is no known genetic cause. We still rely on clinical diagnoses, which may not come, may be incorrect, or may simply just take entirely too long to arrive at.

Thinking zebras is important for allies of the rare disease community, who wonder how they can help us raise awareness and mobilize.

Thinking zebras is important for researchers in rare diseases. The theme of Rare Disease Day this year is “With Research Possibilities Are Limitless,” but research into rare diseases is often frustrating and sometimes fruitless (see: Moebius syndrome research, where they have not found anything genetic yet!)

So next time you hear hoofbeats, look carefully as the zebras gallop by.

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Thinkstock photo by KimsCreativeHub


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