A new Harvard University study has found that multiple sclerosis (MS) could be caused by the common and contagious virus behind the ‘kissing disease’.
The new data suggests that the chronic illness could come from a herpes virus called Epstein-Barr (EBV) that causes mononucleosis —or ‘mono’ as it’s most commonly known.
Mononucleosis, or the ‘kissing disease’, spreads quickly through the population, transferred from person to person through saliva.
Often contracted in childhood, the virus initially appears as a common illness and then lies inactive in the body. The virus will reactivate for some people during their lifetime.
The Esptein-Barr virus is known to cause swollen glands, fatigue, fever and a rash. However the new research now shows that it could cause a lifelong infection that might be a leading cause of MS.
The research, published on January 13 in the Journal of Science, studied 955 young adults who suffer with MS.
The data sample was taken from a cohort of 10 million military professionals, currently on active duty in the service.
Astonishingly, the research found that the risk of MS increased 32 times after being infected with the ‘kissing disease’ virus. The scientists found that no other virus increased the risk of MS.
Senior author of the study Alberto Ascherio said in a press release that the study showed “compelling evidence of causality”.
Although the link between MS and EBV has been investigated for several years, this is the first study of its kind to find compelling evidence.
Professor Ascherio believes that the delay between contracting the virus and developing MS symptoms might be because the immune system is repeatedly stimulated when the latent EPV virus reactivates.
What is multiple sclerosis?
The NHS describe multiple sclerosis as ‘a condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance’.
It’s a lifelong illness that can often lead to disability, although sometimes the symptoms are more mild.
In most cases, symptoms can be treated, but the average life expectancy is slightly reduced for those who suffer with it.
At the moment there is no known cure for multiple sclerosis, which affects 2.8 million people worldwide.
Professor Ascherio said: “This [study] is a big step because it suggests that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping EBV infection, and that targeting EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS.
“Currently there is no way to effectively prevent or treat EBV infection, but an EBV vaccine or targeting the virus with EBV-specific antiviral drugs could ultimately prevent or cure MS.”
Targeting EBV could prove tough, as a study conducted in 2010 found that roughly 90 percent of people are infected with the virus at some point, usually with no ill effects.
However, the study found that EBV could increase the risk of cancer in those with compromised immune systems.
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