In a study of members of the Armed Forces, people who developed multiple sclerosis first had Epstein-Barr virus.
By Gina Kolata --- Jan. 13, 2022
For decades, researchers have suspected that people infected with an exceedingly common virus, Epstein-Barr, might be more likely to develop multiple sclerosis, a neurological illness that affects a million people in the United States. Now, a team of researchers reports what some say is the most compelling evidence yet of a strong link between the two diseases.
Among the service members in the study, 801 developed multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the fatty insulation that protects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Most who develop the disease are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. The disease is rare, though — an individual’s chance of getting multiple sclerosis is half of one percent.
At the same time, the virus in question, Epstein-Barr, is common, infecting nearly everyone in the population at some point. Although few are aware that they were infected, some develop mononucleosis. The virus remains in the body for life.
Because so few who are infected with the virus get multiple sclerosis, it cannot be the sole cause of the disease. Other risk factors have been identified, including some, like low levels of vitamin D and smoking, that were seen previously by the Harvard group using the same data set. There also are genetic factors — 900 abnormal genes have been identified in patients with multiple sclerosis, said Dr. Anthony J. Reder, a multiple sclerosis expert at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the new study.