Wed Apr 09 2003
By Christi Mathis
The Southern Illinoisan
The village of Coulterville has just about 1,000 residents, so registered nurse Gretchen Steele finds it alarming that she and at least five or six other residents have been diagnosed in recent years with the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis.
"That's an awfully high number, six new cases within only about a mile radius," Steele said. "It's kind of on everyone's mind."
The exact cause of MS is unknown, but researchers believe the damage to myelin (fatty tissue surrounding the nerve fibers that conducts the body's electrical impulses), is the result of an abnormal response by the body's immune system. When myelin is destroyed, scar tissue is left and the ability of the nerves to conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain is disrupted. This causes various symptoms, including vision problems or the loss of sensation or weakness in various body parts.
Scientists believe several factors, including genetics, gender (it's two to three times more common in women), and environmental triggers (including viruses, trauma and toxicology) play a role in MS, said Amy Burger, Communications Manager for the Gateway Area Chapter of the MS Society.
Steele and others in the community are concerned about the prevalence of the disease, because the expected rate is just one case per 1,000 people in the United States. She has contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, as well as the University of Illinois, where a research project on MS prevalence is under way.
U of I Health Systems Research Assistant Dean Joel Cowen told Steele that while U of I is interested in Coulterville's situation, they won't be adding other areas to the study now.
Curtis Noonan, epidemiologist with the CDC, told Steele via e-mail that "the observation of seven cases of MS in this small community seems rather high. However, you must also consider the issues of statistical variability associated with the evaluation of such data in small communities."
Burger said that although statistically it would seem that just one person in Coulterville would have the disease, a projection for all of Randolph County would expect about 34 people with MS and her agency is aware of only about two dozen or less. So, she said although "the environment plays a big factor in MS," no one can say if there's a reason for so many cases in Coulterville or if it's just coincidental.
Steele and her team, the Bi-County Babes and Buddies, will be participating in an MS Walk Sunday at the Millstadt City Park to raise funds for the MS Society. Registration at noon, with the walk getting underway at 1 p.m.
Burger said more teams are welcome to walk to help raise funds for MS
research and to increase public awareness. Teams can register at www.gatewaymswalk.org
or by calling (800) FIGHTMS.
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