Multiple sclerosis is on the rise in Australia, but it’s not all bad news

UNSW medical researchers are at the forefront of advancing the science of multiple sclerosis detection and treatment.

More than 30,000 Australians are living with multiple sclerosis, the most common neurological cause of disability affecting young adults.

While the number of people with the disease has gone up significantly in the past decade, largely due to early detection and longer lifespans, the severity of symptoms experienced by many has declined as treatments have evolved.

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic neurological condition that affects the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord.

MS occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective covering of nerve fibers, called myelin, which allow electrical impulses to travel quickly and efficiently from the brain to the rest of the body.

This causes inflammation and damage, disrupting communications between the brain and the body, which leads to a wide range of symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, numbness and motor dysfunction – such as unsteady movements, muscle spasms and speech difficulties.

MS is typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 to 40 and affects three times more women than men.

Its severity and progression vary from person to person and there is no known single cause, but genetic susceptibility, environmental and lifestyle factors, and infections – such as the Epstein bar virus, which causes glandular fever – have been shown to contribute to its development.

“It’s a disease that can cause significant physical disability,” said UNSW Sydney Professor Arun Krishnan, from the School of Clinical Medicine and the Neuromuscular Disease and Multiple Sclerosis Research Group.

“But that’s a lot less common than it used to be. If you ran an MS clinic 30 or 40 years ago, a lot of people would be in a wheelchair. I don’t have anyone in a wheelchair now,” said Prof. Krishnan, who manages the Multiple Sclerosis Clinic at Prince of Wales Hospital.

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