World Brain Day 2021 was dedicated to Multiple Sclerosis

The symptoms of multiple sclerosis are not always obvious, but the disease can cut the life ambitions of young, economically active people short.

Invisible disease

Early diagnosis and better access to treatment can offer a better quality of life to those affected by a disease for which there is no cure.

This year’s World Brain Day, celebrated recently, was themed ‘Stop Multiple Sclerosis’ and aimed to raise awareness of the debilitating neurological disease that impacts every aspect of a person’s life, with effects ranging from cognitive impairment to severe physical disability.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an immune-mediated disease, one of the most common diseases of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) and affects more than 2.8 million people of all ages around the world, approximately 36 in 100 000 people.

Although the prevalence of MS in South Africa has not been sufficiently researched, the MS World Atlas 2020 estimates it is at 8 per 100 000 people.

South African neurologist Dr Chris Retief, who co-authored the South African guidelines for diagnosis and management of MS, said the disease impacts predominantly young, economically active people, with 32 being the average age of diagnosis globally.

It is the most prevalent cause of neurological disability in people under the age of 60.

The Neurological Association of South Africa (Nasa) collaborated with the World Federation of Neurology (WFN) and the MS International Federation (MSIF) on World Brain Day 2021 to raise awareness so that MS can be diagnosed earlier, promote better access to life-changing treatments, and advocate for improved quality of life for those living with MS and their caregivers.

“Every five minutes, someone somewhere in the world receives the life-altering diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, so the urgency of this matter could not be more apparent,” said Prof Tissa Wijeratne, the World Brain Day chair and director of the Neuroscience Research Unit at Western Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

“Our goal is to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis and its impact on the individuals who live with it, their loved ones and society to improve access to quality neurological care and life-changing treatments.” said WFN president Prof William Carroll.

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is characterised by inflammation and damage to myelin, the coating that insulates and protects the nerves. MS inflammation involves the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

This inflammation typically results in episodes of neurological disability (called relapses), including visual loss, incoordination, walking impairment, weakness or paralysis of a limb, loss of sensation, loss of control of the bladder and also impairment of mental functions.

  • Cognitive or mental impairment includes difficulties in thinking, concentration and memory.
  • The inflammation may also be mild but ongoing, resulting in mild unrecognised relapses or silent gradual deterioration.
  • MS also includes an assortment of “invisible” symptoms, including fatigue, pain, cognitive and emotional issues.
  • The precise trigger of inflammation is unknown, although research implicates abnormal behaviour of B-lymphocytes.
  • Epstein Barr Virus, (commonly known as the cause of glandular fever), is strongly suspected to trigger the MS immune cascade, especially if contracted after childhood.

What is the impact?

“Relapses are characteristic of the initial or early phase of the disease. Treatment of a relapse consists of high dose steroids administered through a drip over a few days.

“Initially, the relapses actually resolved quite well, perhaps giving one a false sense of security that the disease can easily be kept under control with only steroids,” said Retief.

However, if the disease is not treated more intensively, the abnormal B-cells can become clustered in the brain, resulting in chronic continuous inflammation.

What can we do?

Dr Retief said that 25 years ago, there was no treatment for MS, and up to 10 years ago only one tier of treatment was available.

“In 2021, fortunately, we have several treatment modalities,” he said.

These range from immunomodulators, which change the immune system, but are very safe to use, immunosuppressive medications (suppresses the immune system), lymphocyte sequestrators (prevents the abnormal B-lymphocytes from entering the brain), immune reconstitution therapies (resets the immune system for several years), to bone marrow transplantation (the immune system is eradicated, and replaced).

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