Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong neuropathic disorder that occurs due to demyelination of nerve sheaths in the central nervous system. All the symptoms are a result of insult to the nerves in the brain and spinal cord resulting in aberrant impulse conduction. The cause of this aberrancy is considered to be auto-antibodies responsible for the insult of myelin sheath. The activation of auto-antibodies against myelin sheath is thought to be due to complex interaction between the genetics and environment, which is still not properly understood.
Can MS Be Sexually Transmitted?
In 2002, Dr. Chris H. Hawkes of Institute of Neurology, London, UK, put forward the hypothesis that multiple sclerosis may, in fact, be linked to sexually transmitted disease. His hypothesis was based on different epidemiological studies, which include migration studies, clusters and epidemics, tropical spastic paraplegia, and general characteristics of sexually transmitted infections and relation to multiple sclerosis.
Based on migration studies, migrating from high to low risk area before the age of 15 years is associated with reduced risk of MS, while migration from areas of high risk to low risk increases the risk of MS emphasizing the role of an environmental factor.
Cluster and epidemics studies have shown that the advent of MS was seen in MS naive areas (Faroe Islands, Hordaland, Norway, Iceland, Orkney and Shetland islands) after entry of young soldiers, especially during wartime. Now there is rate of MS is declining.
Tropical spastic paraplegia has been associated with retrovirus HTLV-1 infection, which has a lot of similarity with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, owing to the familial transmission in both the diseases.
Just like sexually transmitted diseases, MS is also more common in permissive societies with early onset increased rate in females. Nevertheless, low rate is found in societies with strict sexual moral code.
Longitudinal incidence studies with 12000 verified cases in Danish multiple sclerosis registry suggest increased risk of MS in females and use of oral contraceptive for 6 or more years to increase the risk of MS.
Altogether other studies, such as childhood multiple sclerosis, conjugal multiple sclerosis and transmission through parents, breast milk, drugs or blood transfusion all pointed out towards a sexual component in the occurrence of multiple sclerosis.
Dr. CH. Hawkes hypothesized via the above collected data that multiple sclerosis may be associated with sexually transmitted disease and may in fact be sexually transmitted, mostly transmitted during adolescence from infected male. He did not exclusively mention that sexual transmission is the only cause, but proposed that the genetic factors may play an important role in increasing the likelihood of sexually transmitted agents that affect neural health.
However, several experts and Multiple Sclerosis Society rejected this hypothesis by Dr. CH. Hawkes calling it a mere speculation. The reason behind this was that the analysis was only based on reviewing collected data for other research purposes. The hypothesis was based on modern perspective toward an old data; there was no new discovery to base this hypothesis on.
There were also some loose ends to the hypothesis, as not all evidence supported the hypothesis. For example, if multiple sclerosis were a sexually transmitted disease, then why are not the spouses of MS sufferers at a greater risk of acquiring the disease?
Moreover, there has been no direct evidence of transmission of any kind of infectious agent in multiple sclerosis. There are no new facts reported in this hypothesis, which precludes it of having any scientific worth.
After reviewing the hypothesis and reactions of various experts in the related field, it is clear that there is much needed research in this field. Until new data is accumulated and brought into light of a sexually transmitted infectious agent associated with multiple sclerosis, it is safe to say that multiple sclerosis is not a sexually transmitted disease, as there has been no proven research until now supporting the hypothesis.
Hawkes CH. Is multiple sclerosis a sexually transmitted infection? Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2002;73:439-443.
Laurie Barclay. Could Multiple Sclerosis Be A Sexually Transmitted Disease? – Medscape – Sep 20, 2002.
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