December 22, 2002, 8:29 PM EST
By DON BABWIN
Associated Press Writer
PAW PAW, Ill.
Harold Ikeler had long thought something in his family caused the multiple sclerosis that killed his wife, put one daughter into a wheelchair and attacked two others.
Then two local women began compiling a list of Paw Paw residents and former residents with the disease that grew to 13 names. That got the retired farm machinery salesman wondering whether something in this town of 850 people outside Rockford had unleashed all these cases.
"The ongoing theory is it needs a trigger to start it," said Ikeler, 70. "What the trigger is, I have no idea. It's a mystery."
Now the mystery has captured the attention of a team of medical detectives. Researchers from the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford are preparing to study multiple sclerosis here and in four other communities in western and central Illinois: Lewiston, Savanna, Morrison and DePue.
The study is one of five in the United States that each received about $100,000 recently from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a sister agency to the Centers for Disease Control.
Joel Cowen, head of the Health Systems Research Unit at the medical school, said Sunday the scientists hope to launch the study in the spring.
The researchers will try to verify what residents say they already know: that the rates of the disorder are far higher in their towns than the national average of roughly one case in every 1,000 people. If true, the rates would be among the highest in the world.
"Lewiston has 2,700 people and I've got 14 names," said Monica Smith, a resident who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago. "Something is drastically wrong here."
Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, believed to be caused by immune cells attacking the protective myelin sheath surrounding bundles of nerves. Without this insulation, nerve impulses are interrupted, leading to mild, intermittent symptoms for some, and blindness, paralysis and even death from related infections in others.
"We're 16 times the national average," said Beth Buffington, who began researching the disease in Paw Paw after her best friend was diagnosed two years ago. Buffington's lobbying of health officials helped get the town included in the study.
There are plenty of theories as to why multiple sclerosis struck these towns; many lead back to the fact that this is farm country.
"I say it's got something do with what we do with our ground," said Velma Kreuder, of Savanna, whose nephew's wife has the disease. "That girl lived on a farm, and my theory is it has something to do with all the fertilizer and that stuff they put in the ground and we all breathe."
In the Mississippi River town of Savanna, there have been suspicions about the effects of living so close to an army depot where bombs and ammunition used to be made, tested and stored.
Smith wonders whether Lewiston's cases might be tied to the days when treated sewage from Chicago was shipped up the Illinois River to the area, and was spread on fenced-in fields.
"They tested the groundwater and never came up with anything... But it is awfully coincidental," she said.
In DePue, there are questions about a zinc smelting plant that operated for decades until the late 1980s. Concerns about the long-term effects of heavy metals there have prompted studies, and in 1999 the facility was designated a Superfund site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The theories get fuzzier in Morrison and Paw Paw, where Ikeler said the last industry in town was a tile factory that blew up before he was born.
Residents and others say the school's research will be invaluable.
"This study is a relief because it means somebody is looking at this
and saying something's wrong," said Smith, of Lewiston. "If they find a
higher rate it will lead to more investigation."
Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press