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Doctors probing mystery of Utah’s high prevalence of multiple sclerosis

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Mar 26, 2024

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services via AP

This image provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows an illustration of the outer coating of the Epstein-Barr virus, one of the world’s most common viruses. New research is showing stronger evidence that Epstein-Barr infection could set some people on the path to later developing multiple sclerosis.

Utah has one of the highest incidence rates of multiple sclerosis in the nation, and Intermountain Health physicians are trying to figure out why that’s the case.

The neurological autoimmune disease affects more than 1 million Americans and is three times more likely to strike women, especially during the postpartum years. Approximately 30,000 Utahns have MS and doctors think one of the triggers is due to low exposure to vitamin D. Genetics also are believed to be a factor, and other triggers can include smoking and having the Epstein-Barr virus, an illness that can cause mononucleosis.

“It’s more that there’s a predisposition that can be passed on,” said Dr. Timothy West, an Intermountain Health neurologist who specializes in MS. “Then certain things in the environment, and how you grew up, and things you’re exposed to can then trigger those genes.”

During a press conference Friday, West said Intermountain Health is conducting studies and doing research on the matter of why diagnoses of MS seems to be so high in the state. He said there’s a lot of work to be done before a definite explanation can be given.

When it comes to vitamin D, the best way to get it is through natural sunlight. But if you live farther away from the equator, which Utahns do, West said you’re out of the sun more, especially during the months of November through March.

MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The disease mistakenly attacks myelin, a protective sheath covering nerve fibers in the central nervous system. When damaged, the myelin forms scar tissue called sclerosis, setting off a disruption of electrical signals to the brain and spinal cord.

Some of the symptoms, which can be mild to severe, include numbness, tingling, fatigue, tremors, memory problems, mood changes, pain, muscle spasms, trouble walking, depression, incontinence and even blindness. Symptoms vary widely and depend on the location of nerve fiber damage.

There also are varying types of the disease that include relapsing-remitting and primary and secondary progressive MS.

There isn’t one single way to diagnose MS, but doctors will rule out other possible causes for symptoms and then perform a complete health history, neurological exam and other tests such as an MRI or spinal tap.

While there is no cure, there are several treatments available to help keep the disease in check and manage symptoms. These treatments, including medication, vitamin D supplements and rehabilitation activities such as physical and occupational therapy, are helping those with MS live high-quality lives with lower levels of disability than ever before, West said.

“MS affects every person differently and no two cases are alike,” he said. “Historically, MS was one of the more common causes for neurological disability in young adults; however, today, we are not seeing this thanks to very effective treatments for the disease. It’s wise to get checked by a health care provider if symptoms last more than 24 hours. Symptoms can come and go, but it’s worth getting checked out anyway. The sooner you get checked, the better.”

March is National MS Awareness Month. To learn more, visit https://tinyurl.com/ya2aatpu.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a misstatement about Utah’s proximity to the equator.


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