More MS news articles for September 2002

Charlie Courtauld: So MS is sexually transmitted, is it? Just look at me and you'll know it's a lie

22 September 2002

Lock up your daughters. The sex god is back in town. A report out last week citing a Danish study, no less suggests that multiple sclerosis, the disease I've got, could be sexually transmitted. And that surely means that I must be a bit of a dude between the sheets (know what I mean, nudge, nudge?)

In the current issue of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, a paper suggests that MS is more common in sexually permissive societies, and that incidence of the disease increased around the time that the contraceptive pill became available. Not only that, the study notes that the arrival of 20,000 young, strapping (no doubt sex-starved) British troops in Orkney and Shetland between 1954 and 1974 led to a four-fold increase in the incidence of MS. Surely that clinches it?

I'm afraid not. Tempting as it may be to equate one's own disease with sexual adventurousness, I'm afraid that the facts don't support the theory. If I were to follow Tracey Emin's example inscribing all my sex partners on a duvet the result would hardly cover my feet. Even then, I'd have to sew large letters. Not only can I count my sex partners on the fingers of one hand I can count them on the fingers of one of Bart Simpson's hands. But the report doesn't end with its suggestion that adult MS may be linked to youthful promiscuity. Most unpleasantly, the report implies that child sex abuse may be the root cause of MS in children and young women.

Now, I haven't studied the relationship between child abuse and MS, so it ill behoves me to suggest that there is no link although I can certainly attest that there's none in my case. But it strikes me that the report's author, Dr Christopher Hawkes, has not done his homework either. There isn't anything in the report to suggest to take just one rather obvious example that any research has been done on the incidence of child abuse among MS patients compared to the general population, nor even that his theory has undergone the normal process of peer review: the Journal boasts of its new internet-based review system, which is bound to be open to abuse.

Nevertheless, Dr Hawkes feels sufficiently confident of his theory to posit, somewhat pompously, "I propose that multiple sclerosis is a sexually transmitted infection acquired principally during adolescence".

Like spying witches in Tudor times, whose innocence could only be proven by drowning, accusations of child abuse are the touchstone allegation of our age. Since it is almost impossible to convince the finger-pointers that one has not been abused ("you've just repressed the memory, you poor thing"), child abuse has become the easiest allegation to make and the hardest to shrug off.

Now I'm not suggesting that allegations of child abuse should be generally ignored, nor that they are invariably untrue. Five minutes spent studying the transcripts of the Victoria Climbié inquiry should be enough to convince anyone that not only is child abuse real but that it is just as horrific as any number of NSPCC advertisements would have you believe.

No, what I'm arguing for is the opposite. It is because child abuse is real, and because its effects are so horrific, that perhaps a bit more caution should be shown before bandying the accusation around too freely.

Neither would I do anything other than welcome serious study into the causes of multiple sclerosis. It is a horrible, degenerative disease which affects too many. And if child abuse, tooth-filling amalgam or even childhood overcleanliness each of which has been blamed at one time or another turns out to be a significant cause, then I look forward to reading the proof.

But if as I suspect is rather more likely the root cause of this illness turns out to be messier, less clear-cut, more to do with genetics and proteins than these easy answers suggest then I hope that Dr Hawes and his drivel-peddling colleagues will be prepared to accept this evidence, and crack on with finding a cure.

© 2002, Independent Newspapers Ltd