Every week, 200 people learn they have multiple sclerosis, or MS. For many, the diagnosis brings uncertainty and fear. "When the neurologist said those words, 'You have MS,' it hit me like a brick. I thought the diagnosis was a death sentence," said television host Montel Williams about his experience with MS.
As we recognize Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month in March, it's important to dispel myths and show that multiple sclerosis patients and their families know there is hope for living with this disease. For example, most people with MS have a normal or near-normal life expectancy. What's more, the majority of people with MS do not become severely disabled.
But first, what is multiple sclerosis? According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is a chronic, unpredictable neurological disease that affects the central nervous system. There are four phases of the disease; most common is the "relapsing–remitting" phase where patients experience flare-ups followed by recovery periods. The National Institutes of Health report that many investigators believe MS to be a disease in which the body, through its immune system, launches a defensive attack against its own nerve tissues. Why the body attacks itself in this way is still unknown.
MS is difficult to diagnose because symptoms can be as unpredictable as the weather, and highly variable. Some people go years without noticeable symptoms, most noticing them between ages 20 and 40. Multiple sclerosis affects twice as many women as men, according to the Mayo Clinic. Although African Americans are half as likely as Caucasians to develop multiple sclerosis, research from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society shows that the disease affects African-Americans more aggressively than their counterparts.
While there is no cure for MS, there are now FDA-approved medications that have been shown to "modify" or slow down the underlying cause of MS. More good news is on the horizon. According to a new survey of America's pharmaceutical research companies, there are currently 547 new medicines in development to treat a variety of neurological disorders, including MS. This includes 46 treatments for multiple sclerosis, including a potential vaccine in development that is designed to specifically target T-cells that contain disease-specific proteins. The cells can damage the sheath that protects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, resulting in multiple sclerosis.
For those who need help affording their prescription medicines, including those needed to manage MS and other neurological disorders, there are programs that can help. The Partnership for Prescription Assistance (1-888-4PPA-NOW or www.pparx.org), a national program sponsored by America's pharmaceutical research companies, provides a single point of access to information on more than 475 patient assistance programs.
In addition to medicines, physical and occupational therapy can help build strength and teach patients how to use tools that can assist in everyday tasks, all of which helps preserve independence. It's natural for patients who suffer from any disease, including MS, to feel sad, angry or confused. Reaching out to friends, family and others in the MS community can help.
Larry Lucas is a vice president for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.