Adolescent MS

Multiple sclerosis research in the Northwest could lead to new treatments

The mystery of why the Pacific Northwest has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world is as enduring as the mystery of the D.B. Cooper hijacking. And has proven about as difficult to crack.

Recently, however, scientists have been closing in on some likely triggers that may be causing the body to hijack its own immune system and turn on itself. Those new findings could lead to new treatment strategies in the future.

MS is a sneaky, unpredictable autoimmune disease that damages nerves and can impair vision and mobility as well as thinking and memory. The prevalence of MS here is about triple the level in the lower part of the United States, and many more times higher than elsewhere in the world. In King County, there are 9,000 known patients, and a growing number of them are children.

The prevalence is so high here that the Northwest chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has posted giant billboards around the city for the past several years asking questions like these:  Is it the trees? Is it the rain?

The questions may have been rhetorical, but the billboards were a reminder of the need to keep digging for answers about what causes MS.

On a macro scale, scientists actually do know why the rate appears elevated here.

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Pediatric MS cases rise in the Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world, yet the reasons why remain elusive. It’s an old mystery, but one that now has a new face. Today, doctors are seeing a growing number of cases in kids. They hope these young patients will yield more clues to what causes the disease.

MS is an autoimmune disease that causes nerve damage over time. It’s more common at higher latitudes, and tends to affect more women than men. Eventually, it can impair someone’s mobility, their vision – even their thinking and memory. It’s always been known as a “prime-of-life” disease, one that typically strikes in young adulthood.

For Allexis, now a senior at Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, that wasn’t the case. She was diagnosed when she was 14 years old.

It started one Friday during the summer two years ago.

“I couldn’t sleep because I had the worst headache,” she said. “Out of a scale of one to 10, it was a 15.” She tried to go for her regular morning run the next day, and things got worse.

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A map of multiple sclerosis by latitude

Multiple Sclerosis has long been known as an autoimmune disorder that affects more people living in the Pacific Northwest than in most other parts of the country, and the world. Scientists still don't have a firm answer why that is.

But researchers have begun unraveling some new theories about the disease from a set of intriguing clues. They know, for example, that the farther you live from the equator, the higher your risk. The map below is based on data collected by the National MS Society.

Click here for the full-size image.

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