More MS news articles for Oct 2001

2 areas show tendency for multiple sclerosis cases

Wednesday, October 3, 2001
Melissa Martinez
El Paso Times

People who grew up in the Kern Place and Mission Hills neighborhoods of West-Central El Paso have double the national rate of multiple sclerosis cases, the Texas Department of Health said Tuesday.

The results of the five-year study found 14 cases of people with multiple sclerosis who lived in the Kern Place or Mission Hills areas from 1948 through 1970. According to national prevalence rates, a neighborhood that size should have only seven cases of the neurological disorder, health officials said.

Judy Weiser, who alerted Health Department officials to the possible cluster several years ago, had been expecting the study to do more than confirm her suspicions.

"I thought it was going to be a more scientific study other than just counting noses," said Weiser, who has multiple sclerosis and attended Mesita Elementary during the late 1950s. "I really thought they would see if there were common experiences or exposures among us."

Weiser is hopeful the study will expand to looking for the cause of the cluster.

"This has just whetted my appetite to make me more curious," she said.

The results alarmed some former students.

"It's pretty scary," said Ruth Ellen Jacobson, who attended Mesita Elementary School during the 1960s. "You wonder if it's affecting anyone else."

The study surveyed people who attended Mesita and E.B. Jones elementary schools between 1948 and 1970. School enrollment records from Mesita and E.B. Jones, which was demolished in the early 1970s, were used as markers to identify children who lived in the neighborhood, said Judy Henry, chief study investigator and co-director of the Texas Department of Health environmental epidemiology and toxicology division. Henry said the schools are not linked to the cluster, but rather the entire neighborhood.

No known threat exists for current students and teachers of Mesita Elementary School, Henry said.

No threat to residents exists either, despite recent Environmental Protection Agency reports of heavy metals in the soil, said Dr. Miguel Escobedo, regional director for the Texas Department of Health.

"Rest assured that if we felt there was a public-health issue, we would let the public know right away," he said.

Of the more than 5,000 students identified, only 800 responded to study questionnaires, Henry said.

Initially, 22 people responded that they had multiple sclerosis, but only 14 cases were confirmed, Henry said. Some people identified with the disease declined to participate in the study because they had not informed their families or employers.

All cases were among former Mesita students, Henry said. But not many E.B. Jones students responded to the survey.

It is unknown what is causing the cluster, but such groupings are typical of the disease, said Dr. Randolph Schiffer, a neurologist who has been working on the study.

"This clustering of MS is a characteristic of the disease all across the country," said Schiffer, who is helping the Texas Department of Health determine prevalence rates for Texas. "No cluster has ever been fully understood. There is no medical precedent."

The El Paso cluster is the only known group in the Southwest. Most clusters exist in the Northern parts of the country. Only one -- in Key West, Fla. -- has been identified in the South, Henry said. More than 150 clusters have been reported in the United States. No cause has been linked to any of the clusters.

The ambiguity of the disease makes it difficult to study and find a cause or cure, Henry said. The cause of the El Paso cluster also may never be found.

"That is a very real possibility," Henry said.

But study participants have made valuable scientific contributions, and others are still needed to come forward. The study will remain open for two more years as researchers attempt to identify more cases, Henry said.

The numbers found in El Paso are not enough to lead to a larger study to find the cause, but the findings, grouped with others across the country, could lead to a more comprehensive analysis nationwide, Henry said. The funding for the El Paso study was provided by a grant from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

"We are really at the start of a lot of scientific cases," Henry said.

The study began in 1997 because of reports of the possibility of a high number of multiple sclerosis cases in the area among people who lived in the Kern Place area during the 1940s through 1960s. Questionnaires were sent to the former students.

The most recent figures show the national rate of multiple sclerosis at 167 per 100,000 people. The rate for the Mesita students in the group is 360 per 100,000, according to the report.

Though no cause for multiple sclerosis or the El Paso cluster has been identified, many former Kern Place residents have pointed to environmental factors and wonder whether area manufacturing plants are to blame.

"It's very strange that there's so many people in a small area," Jacobson said. "There's got to be some correlation" with the nearby manufacturing plants, she said.

Jacobson said tasting sulfur while playing at the school was a daily, typical event. The cause could go beyond the school grounds, Jacobson said. Four of her classmates have multiple sclerosis, and they all lived very close to the school, she said.

Jacobson has never been tested for the disease and has not had any symptoms, she said.

"They were all like next-door neighbors," said Jacobson, who responded to the survey. "I lived near Rim Road, which is not that far away, but maybe that stuff blew the other direction."

No studies have linked environmental factors to causing multiple sclerosis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The society's Web site lists information stating that "there is no evidence that heavy metal poisoning is responsible."

Heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, can damage the nervous system and produce symptoms similar to those of multiple sclerosis, but "the damage is inflicted in a different way and the course of the disorder is also different," according to information listed on the site (

A recent Environmental Protection Agency study indicated 22 El Paso schools, including Mesita, were clear of any heavy-metal contamination. About 400 samples were taken from 100 sites and tested for arsenic and lead. No dangerous levels were shown.

Soil samples from the University of Texas at El Paso and Arroyo Park, also in West-Central El Paso, did indicate high levels of heavy metals. The EPA standard for heavy metals is 500 parts per million of lead and 20 parts per million of arsenic.

UTEP levels were at 1,550 parts per million of lead and 51 parts per million arsenic; Arroyo Park tested 29 parts per million arsenic.

It is human nature to want to find blame, but in this case it can't be done, said Dr. Jorge Magaña, director of the El Paso City-County Health and Environmental District.

"It's a natural reaction to want to explain something that has no known cause, but there is no direct cause and effect in this case," he said.

The disease

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease in which inflammation and breakdown in the protective insulation surrounding the nerve fibers of the central nervous system occur. The disease is typically diagnosed in patients between the ages of 20 and 50.

MS symptoms

Between 250,000 and 350,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Symptoms include:

  • Less common: Tremors; lack of coordination; slurred speech; sudden onset of paralysis, similar to stroke; decline in cognitive function -- ability to think, reason and remember.
  • Information: National Multiple Sclerosis Society, (800) FIGHT-MS or
MS study

The Texas Department of Health will continue the study for two more years to find additional cases of multiple sclerosis. Anyone who attended Mesita or E.B. Jones elementary schools between 1948 and 1970 is asked to call (800) 588-1248 or visit the Web site at . Former students do not have to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis to respond.

Melissa Martinez may be reached at; Source: National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Copyright © 2001 El Paso Times