Monday, July 23, 2007

Veterans could be key in multiple sclerosis cure

By Stephanie Heinatz - Daily Press
July 22, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is keeping an eye on military veterans, especially those who served in the first Persian Gulf war and have since been diagnosed with the debilitating neurological disease.

“There appears to be an increased risk of MS in combat vets,” said Shawn O’Neail, the society’s vice president for federal government relations. “Are Gulf war veterans at an increased risk of developing MS? We have a long way to go to say that comfortably.”

But they want to find out.

The strongest evidence comes from a 2005 European Neurology study showing that from 1993 to 2000, the years following the first Gulf war, the rate of MS among Kuwaitis more than doubled.

“In a geographic area that was previously associated with low prevalence, local environmental factors may be responsible for these dramatic changes,” the study said.

If Gulf war vets do have an increased risk, it could lead researchers to a specific environmental trigger for the currently incurable disease. A trigger could lead to better treatment and “dare I say a cure,” according to O’Neail.

The society, with help from a nationwide grassroots effort, lobbied Congress this year to include MS in the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, which is administered by the Defense Department.

While diseases studied in the program don’t necessarily have a connection to military service, the society never pursued getting MS included before because “it never really made sense to us,” O’Neail said. “It makes sense now.”

More than 25,000 veterans from all wars have been diagnosed with MS, O’Neail said. More than 5,000 of those cases have been classified “service connected” by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The symptoms for Gulf war illness and MS can be very similar, said Julie Mock, a Gulf war veteran with MS who runs Veterans of Modern Warfare.