The news that Jack Osbourne has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) has focused attention on the most common illness to cause major disability in young people in the UK. He was diagnosed after developing two of the most common early symptoms – loss of vision in one eye and numbness or tingling. Other symptoms include balance problems and I have no doubt that GPs up and down the land have had more consultations than ever with anxious patients concerned that they, too, might have MS. It is certainly many patients’ fear when they come to see me with numbness or dizziness. Fortunately, I can usually reassure them that both symptoms are much more likely to be caused by other causes such as nerve trapping in the neck or inner ear problems, rather than by MS.
While women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Jack Osbourne is in a high-risk age group for the disease – most people first develop symptoms in their 20s or 30s. It affects about 1 in 1,000 Britons, but is more common in Scotland than further south in the UK. One of the theories about the finding that MS becomes more common the further you live from the equator, is that lack of vitamin D - the so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’ - might be one of the triggers for MS. Your genes seem to play a role too – people who have MS in the family (with a parent, brother or sister affected) are about ten times more likely to get it themselves.
However, inheritance alone does not give the whole picture – MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease, in which the body’s immune system, which usually helps people fight off infection, attacks part of their own body. Underactive thyroid gland, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis are also autoimmune conditions. It’s possible that in people with a certain genetic make-up, a viral infection can trigger the autoimmune process.
Although MS is not curable, there are many new treatments on the horizon. Despite all the failings of the NHS, every patient in the UK is entitled to specialist assessment and a wide variety of support and medications. Jack Osbourne undoubtedly has health insurance which will allow him to access this level of treatment. Many US citizens are not so lucky.
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