More MS news articles for December 2000

Relax: You Can't Catch MS

Spouses at no extra risk of developing disorder

By Nicolle Charbonneau
HealthScout Reporter
FRIDAY, Dec. 1 (HealthScout) -- Don't worry about "catching" multiple sclerosis from your spouse.
The debilitating neurological disorder is not infectious, reiterates new research.

"When you're the spouse of a patient with MS, and people tell you they don't know the cause of the disease, some people are concerned that they would catch it -- that they would contract the disease from sharing the environment, from sharing the food, from having sex, whatever," says senior researcher Dr. Pierre Duquette, director of the MS clinic at the University of Montreal-Notre Dame. "Some of the patients' spouses take us aside and ask us, 'Well, since my spouse has MS, am I at risk? Will I get the disease?' "

Stephen Reingold, vice president for research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in New York City, says concern that the disease is contagious "is one of the major dogmas in MS."

But the answer, Duquette stresses, is clearly no.
Roughly 250,000 to 350,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease in which the body's immune system attacks the protective sheath, called myelin, that surrounds nerve cells throughout the nervous system.

The scarring that results slows the passage of electrical impulses through the nerves, leading to weakness, numbness and vision problems, among other symptoms. In severe MS cases, paralysis may result. There's no known cure, but drugs can manage the symptoms and even slow the return of relapses that affect some patients.

Canadian and British researchers interviewed 13,550 Canadian residents with MS, all participants in the Canadian Collaborative Project on Genetic Susceptibility to MS. All had been involved in a "marital" relationship, either official or common-law.

Only 23 reported that their spouses had MS, a rate that would be expected in the general population, the researchers say.

"There is no increased risk for the spouse of someone with MS to have the disease," Duquette says. "The disease is not contagious."

In comparison, among the 49 children of parents who both had MS, six children also had the disease. That translates to a risk of about 30 percent if both parents had MS, a rate similar to that found in identical twins at risk of the disease, the study says.

That points to a strong genetic component, the researchers contend.

"It probably means that there is no infectious agent, either inside the body or in the immediate environment," Duquette says. "The immediate familial environment is not involved."

"We know it's something on a larger level," he says. "It could be climate, it could be the level of measles reactivity in society, for example. It's probably a combination of different factors."

However, he adds, "if you have a couple where both have MS, their children are clearly at an increased risk of having the disease over what it would be if only one spouse had MS."

"Even if you have only one parent with MS, you're still at an increased risk," Duquette says. Findings appear in the latest Annals of Neurology.

Steven Jacobson, chief of viral immunology at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, supports the study's conclusions.

"I think it's important when you deal with the patients to say…that it's not contagious," Jacobson says. "There's no evidence for that."

However, he stresses a difference between an infection that automatically causes a disease when present -- such as HIV or polio -- and an infection that exists in all of us but only produces disease in susceptible individuals -- such as Helicobactor pylori, the organism linked to gastric ulcers.