Friday, August 17, 2007

Mainers have higher rate of MS than rest of nation

By Nicole Heanssler

BELFAST (Aug 17): Maine has a 70 percent higher rate of multiple sclerosis than the national average. According to Dr. James Stevenson, neurologist at Waldo County General Hospital, one in 400 people in Maine is affected, whereas the national average is one in 1,000.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society lists this disease as the most frequent cause of nontraumatic neurological disability in early to middle adulthood.

Why is the number so high in Maine? Research has shown there is a link between a person’s geographic location during adolescence and the risk of developing MS, among other factors.

In March, Stevenson joined the active medical staff at Waldo County General Hospital. He treats neurological disorders, including headache disorders, and has a keen interest in treating patients with MS.

He recalled his first experience treating patients with MS. When a partner of his was retiring he took on some of his colleague’s case load, which happened to include a group of MS patients. In the course of treating them, Stevenson found that the challenge and the unknowns of the disease intrigued him.

“In a way, MS chose me and with my scientific background, academic interest and the challenge of treating the disease, I expanded on my opportunity to treat patients with this disease,” he said.

Word of his interest in treating MS quickly traveled through the extensively networked MS community, allowing him to treat patients with many differing symptoms and stages of the disease.

Multiple sclerosis, believed to be an autoimmune disease, is a chronic neurological disease that affects the brain and spinal cord resulting in the loss of muscle control, vision, balance and sensation.

The disease is more common in women, is partly genetic and tends to affect individuals with a Northern European ancestry at a higher rate than those with other ethnic backgrounds. Researchers haven’t found the exact cause but believe genetics, environmental triggers and a person’s geographic location are significant factors that contribute to the disease.

Stevenson suggests that possibly infectious and/or environmental triggers, which comprises two-thirds of the risk, combined with a genetic factor, which is one-third of the risk, may be the underlying cause for an individual developing MS.

Individuals who live in northern latitudes tend to have more of a risk of developing MS than those who live closer to the equator, he said.

Symptoms may present themselves in several ways but most common are muscular and visual symptoms such as muscle weakness, lack of coordination, blurred vision or double vision.

For a more detailed list of symptoms or information, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society website — MS is diagnosed through clinical evaluations assisted by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and other testing.

There is no cure for MS. Six medications help reduce the impact of the disease. When diagnosis is confirmed, medication therapy is begun to lessen the symptoms and frequency of attacks that accompany MS. Four of the six medications can be administered at home and the other two, Tysabri and a chemotherapeutic agent, are administered in a clinical setting through intravenous infusions.

Patients of Stevenson who are prescribed the IV therapies, may have their treatment administered locally at the hospital’s Oncology and Infusion Therapy department.

Stevenson also noted that therapy has a high success rate in reducing the frequency of attacks by one-third or two-thirds.

Because of his extensive experience in treating MS, Stevenson is an appointed member of the clinical advisory committee for the Maine chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and speaker on behalf of the Maine chapter’s self-help groups. He is also a consultant and speaker for patient and physician audiences locally and nationally for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and for various pharmaceutical firms.

Stevenson’s office, Belfast Neurology Associates, is located in the Cobb Medical Building, Suite 102, 16 Fahey St. For more information, call 930-2695.

Waldo County General Hospital is a not-for-profit community hospital that has been caring for neighbors since 1901.

VillageSoup/Waldo County Citizen Editor Beth Staples can be reached at 207-338-0484 or by e-mail at