Glandular fever may be the biggest cause of multiple sclerosis

Glandular fever may be the biggest cause of multiple sclerosis: ‘Kissing disease’ may increase crippling disease risk 32-fold, study warns

  • Decades of research tracked 10 million US soldiers and linked a virus and MS
  • MS is a crippling disease and can lead to problems with movement and senses
  • It is caused by the body’s own immune system accidentally attacking the nerves
  • Scientists say they now have ‘convincing evidence’ linking virus and MS



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Mononucleosis may be the single biggest cause of multiple sclerosis, a large study has concluded.

Harvard scientists say they have “conclusive evidence” that the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) – which causes kissing disease/mononucleosis – is to blame.

They tracked the prevalence of MS among 10 million soldiers in the United States military over the course of two decades. Volunteers had regular blood tests to see if they had EBV.

Nearly 1,000 were diagnosed with the crippling condition, which causes victims to struggle to walk and see.

Analysis of the patients revealed that those who had EBV were 32 times more likely to develop MS. No other infection increased the risk.

Professor Alberto Ascherio, author of the study, said: ‘The hypothesis that EBV causes MS has been explored by our group and others for several years.

‘But this is the first study to provide convincing evidence for causality.

“This is a big step because it suggests that most cases of MS can be prevented by stopping the EBV infection.”

He added: ‘Targeting for EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS.’

An image of a 3D model of the Epstein-Barr virus.  Harvard scientists say they have found compelling evidence that this virus is behind MS, a crippling disease that affects the body's nerves and leads to problems with movement and the senses

An image of a 3D model of the Epstein-Barr virus. Harvard scientists say they have found compelling evidence that this virus is behind MS, a crippling disease that affects the body’s nerves and leads to problems with movement and the senses

What is glandular fever?

Also called “kissing disease” because of its spread through saliva, this disease is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

It is also called mono in the US, short for mononucleosis.

What is it?

A viral infection caused by EBV.

How is it distributed?

Usually by exchanging saliva with an infected person. This can be by kissing or sharing cups or cutlery, but young children can also get it by sharing toys.

People are usually contagious for several weeks before symptoms appear.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms include:

  • a high temperature (fever)
  • a severe sore throat
  • swollen glands in the neck
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)

Are there any long-term risks?

Symptoms usually disappear after two to three weeks, although fatigue is known to last up to seven months.

The virus behind glandular fever is suspected to cause the onset of MS, although the exact mechanism of this interaction is not understood. However, only a small proportion of people with glandular fever ever develop MS.

There have also been studies linking EBV infection to increasing the risk of certain cancers.

Researchers, who published their findings in the journal Science, took blood from the participants every two years.

They analyzed their levels of neurofilament light chain, a hallmark sign of MS.

The molecule is produced in the body during nerve damage, the underlying cause of MS.

Levels of the molecule only increased after EBV infection, which the researchers consider to be the smoking weapon connecting the two.

dr. Clare Walton, head of research at the British charity MS Society, told MailOnline it was ‘great to see’ research into the cause of the condition, which affects more than 100,000 people in Britain and about 1 million in the US.

However, she added that more research needed to be done because other factors must come into play.

dr. Walton warned that nine in ten people worldwide eventually become infected with EBV, but “most do not develop MS.”

“Ultimately, we cannot be sure that EBV causes MS until we can see the impact of preventing EBV infection on the incidence of MS,” she added.

“And while research into EBV vaccines is ongoing, it’s still in its early stages.”

The charity MS Trust also welcomed Harvard’s research, but warned that “a lot more is needed.”

EBV has long been suspected as the leading cause of MS, with nearly all people with the condition also contracting the virus.

However, with about 95 percent of people who get EBV at some point in their lives and only a small proportion develop MS, establishing the relationship between the two has been difficult.

The EBV virus is thought to cause the body’s immune system to mistreat parts of the nervous system as a foreign substance and attack it, causing damage and leading to the development of MS.

MS is most commonly diagnosed in people in their twenties and thirties and is one of the leading causes of disability among young people in the UK.

The condition shortens a person’s life expectancy by about five to 10 years.

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