All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for November 2002

High count of MS cases has researchers puzzled

Finding prompts medical study in Fulton County city

November 23, 2002
By Elaine Hopkins
of the Journal Star

Medical researchers plan to study what appears to be a high incidence of multiple sclerosis in Lewistown, DePue and three other Illinois towns.

Joel Cowen, assistant dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford and head of its Health Systems Research Unit, said the study will look at the actual incidence of MS and interview the patients to search for causes.

"It could be environmental. It could be genetic. It could be viral. It's an autoimmune disease," Cowan said.

A $100,000 federal grant for the study will come from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an affiliate of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Monica Smith will be the community outreach coordinator in Lewistown for the study. She said Friday that after she was diagnosed with MS a couple of years ago, she began hearing of others with the disease.

"I started compiling a list of names. I found 14 people in Lewistown and others who grew up here and moved away," she said.

Her list now has 18 people on it, she said, many more than expected for a community the size of Lewistown. The Fulton County seat, Lewistown has a population of about 2,520.

Smith said she knows of even more people in Canton and Astoria, also in Fulton County.

The Lewistown MS patients all have been diagnosed using MRI testing or spinal taps, she said, so there's little doubt about their diagnosis.

"It's possible that the cluster of people here is a typical cluster. They don't know whether there are clusters," she said, or whether the 350,000 MS patients in the United States are distributed evenly.

Smith, 41, who is married and has two sons, also is a school bus driver and college student. She said she is taking medication for MS and doing well.

She began to notice tingling symptoms, and said and received the diagnosis. "There are a lot of people like me who live relatively normal lives. I've got it. I live with it. I'm fine," she said.

"I started becoming the go-to person," and names began coming in, she said. "The numbers are just phenomenal around here."

Cowan said MS occurs when the myelin that covers the nerves from the brain and brain stem becomes diseased and is replaced with scar tissue. An MRI can spot the lesions, he said.

"All these places have come to our attention," he said. The agency funding the research is interested in "hazardous substances" in the communities, he said. The study also will look at the incidence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which could share causative factors with MS.

Lewistown is a farming community with agricultural chemicals, and Chicago sludge has been taken to Fulton County, Cowan said.

DePue, in Bureau County, has about 1,840 residents and a federal Superfund site. "Zinc smelting has gone on there," he said.

Another of the towns, Savanna, in Carroll County, was a weapons storage site. Paw Paw, in Lee County had fertilizer from DePue spread on its fields, Cowan said.

The fifth town, Morrison in Whiteside County, has one of the highest incidences of MS in the world, Cowan said. It's an agricultural community with manufacturing, he said.

"There is some genetic link, but it's all a mystery," he said.

Smith said no one else in her family has MS.

"This is really the ground floor of research in MS," Cowan said.

"I'm really excited about the study going on, and pleased that Lewistown was added to the list," Smith said. "All of these names kept popping up. I thought this can't be right. Cowan said 'you're right. This is not normal.' It really is bizarre."

Copyright © 2002, The Peoria Journal Star Inc