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Last week, Hollywood actor Selma Blair took to Instagram to share the fact that she had been diagnosed multiple sclerosis (MS). In the post, she revealed that her memory is often foggy and that she has been struggling with mobility on her left side and fatigue. People who also suffer from MS took to social media to thank Blair for raising awareness of what it feels like living with the condition.

MS is a disease that affects the body’s central nervous system. It predominantly affects the brain and the spinal cord. MS is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system attacks the protective coating of the nerve fibres, causing communication problems between the brain and rest of the body. It is a condition that affects women more than men. “Most MS patients are young and most are female. Three out of four cases are female and most of them are younger than the age of 35,” says Dr Sohail Al Rukn, Head of Neurology at Rashid Hospital.

“There are four main types of MS: primary progressive, secondary progressive, progressive-relapsing and relapsing-remitting. Almost 70 to 80 per cent of cases of MS are relapsing-remitting, which means that patients will experience between one and two attacks per year if they are not on treatment.” 

Early detection

Although there is no cure for MS, you can limit the permanent damage to nerves and significantly improve the quality of your life if you diagnose and treat the disease early enough. “Early diagnosis is very important because the new McDonald criteria, which came in 2017 and is the internationally accepted criteria, says that early detection of demyelinating CIS in MS patients is very important,” says Dr Al Rukn. “Many trials over the past ten years showed that early intervention had a better outcome for patients in comparison to later treatment. Patients should see a neurologist, take an MRI scan and start the right treatment as early as possible to protect them from the progression of the disease. This will lead to a better quality of life for the patient with less neurological deficit.”

Symptoms for MS include numbness in one part of the body, feelings of fatigue and weakness as well as blurred vision, which is known as optic neuritis.

Dubai Health Authority (DHA) has a specialist MS clinic at Rashid Hospital that currently receives around 450 patients each year. The clinic provides early diagnosis for patients and adheres to international standards for treating cases. The clinic can also diagnose cases presenting similar symptoms to but are not actually MS, which Dr Al Rukn refers to as MS mimicking disorders.

Risk factors

There are no clear risk factors for MS but Dr Al Rukn believes that MS was underdiagnosed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now, with new high-resolution MRI equipment and the McDonald criteria, DHA professionals are diagnosing more patients because they have become more aware of different types of MS. “There are different theories about risk factors, including the Epstein–Barr virus [which causes glandular fever] and an association with MS,” explains Dr Al Rukn. “There are also theories about low levels of vitamin D in the blood causing MS and genetic factors.”

Research developments

Although there is currently no cure for MS, Dr Al Rukn is optimistic that a cure will be found within the next ten years. He refers to current research into using bone marrow transplants and is enthusiastic about the preliminary results. “Recently there was a paper published by Dr Mark Freedman at the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS), which was in October,” he says. “The research was carried out on naïve MS patients, which means they were recently diagnosed and they weren’t on any existing treatment but had an aggressive type of relapse-remitting MS. 

These patients were received a bone marrow transplant. The study took place over two years and the experiment had a huge impact, where they experienced zero relapses, their brain scans were stable and they didn’t require any medication. There are complications and risk factors to bone marrow transplants with stem cells but this was one of the cures that is at the research stage.”