September 27, 2002
For years, doctors have misdiagnosed ataxia as multiple sclerosis or other illnesses, preventing this rare but deadly congenital disease from getting the attention and research it deserved.
But over the last 10 years, scientists have identified 15 strains of ataxia. To find a treatment and cure for the disease, though, advocates say much more research has to be done.
Ataxia can strike anyone
Ataxia can strike anyone at any time, says Donna Gruetzmacher, the foundation's executive director. Many times, people do not know they carry an ataxia gene until they have children displaying signs of ataxia.
The disease acts by killing off cells in the cerebellum section of the brain and spinal cord, which limits the brain's ability to communicate with the body.
At first, it affects balance, coordination and speech - hence the misdiagnosis of multiple sclerosis - but it eventually damages the heart, sight and hearing. It also leaves its victims prone to infections and leukaemia.
As a congenital disease, ataxia can strike every other child in some families. However, it also appears sporadically. Some strains attack children and young adults, while others more commonly affect older people.
No magic cure
There are some medications, and nutrition and exercise are important.
But there is no cure for it.
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