MANILA, JUNE 2, 2006
 (STAR) By Abe Florendo - The agony of multiple sclerosis may have marked the young life and early career of pretty dentist Angel Villafuerte, but it has not defined them. Multiple sclerosis has not impeded her plans to marry and have children and have a flourishing practice, to boot; more recently the disease illuminated for her a personal mission, truly cut out for her: to help other multiple sclerosis patients like her live a better quality of life.

Villafuerte told her dramatic story at a recent forum organized by Schering Philippine Corp. to raise awareness about multiple sclerosis (MS), a little understood disease in the country which occurs in young adults aged 20 to 40, more often female, a disease that strikes them at the prime of their life.

According to neurologist and MS expert Dr. Luis Damian, "Multiple sclerosis gained worldwide attention in recent years because of famous celebrities who have come out in public to reveal their personal battles with the disease – Richard Pryor, Fox News Channel anchorman Neil Cavuto, singer/actress Annette Funicello, and singer Lena Horne."

Damian describes MS as a "chronic recurrent disabling neurological disease, where demyelination, or the destruction of the myelin sheath of nerve fibers, is the main pathology," and that it is "an autoimmune disorder." What should be more clearly understandable to a layman is that, as the doctor said, in unminced words, "the cause of MS remains unknown."

Therein lies the great mystery of MS. Doctors could only tell you that MS occurs in areas that are farther away from the equator, that it is more common among Caucasians (especially from northern Europe, southern Australia and North America) and that it is not an inherited condition.

"The symptoms of MS depend on the location of the lesion in the central nervous system," said Damian. But the common symptoms, he noted, are weakness, sensory loss, loss of bladder control, vertigo, and loss of vision.

He also said that that there are two types of MS: the relapsing-remitting kind, which may cause neurological attacks followed by serious debilitation; and the progressive kind, wherein patients show a gradual, continuous progression of their disease from onset without any periods of attacks of remissions. Among Asians, including Filipinos, the most common type of MS is the opticospinal MS, which presents itself as optic nerve and spinal cord symptoms.

Damian could never emphasize enough the importance of early diagnosis when one experiences one or two of these symptoms. The diagnosis, he said, entails a complete medical history of the patient, a thorough physical exam, including neurological, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify the location of the specific lesions in the brain. Usually, he said, for a patient to be diagnosed with MS, he or she should have a history of two neurological attacks and clinical evidence of two separate lesions.

The big question that arose was: Is MS treatable, given all these causes you couldn’t point a finger on and symptoms that share with other neurological diseases?

"Initially," said Damian, "the treatment of MS was mainly symptomatic. In the ’80s steroids were used extensively, with some benefit to the patient. The ’90s saw the use of immunosuppressants. At present, the drugs that are showing promise are immunomudulation agents, of which betaferon is a good example. Preliminary studies on betaferon have shown that not only does it give symptomatic relief to the patient, it may actually halt the progression of the disease."

The benefits of this treatment are as dramatic and life-altering as the disease itself. Villafuerte recalls her first experiences with MS, when initial diagnosis was made at age 24. She would find difficulty in performing everyday tasks such as climbing the stairs or getting off a bus. "I couldn’t bare the thought of getting married and putting my husband through the heartache of looking after me," she recounted. But the love of her husband, Joseph, prevailed, and they pursued marriage and were blessed with two children. Still, her condition worsened, to the point of becoming bedridden. She was introduced to the betaferon treatment only in December 2005.

"Betaferon is a gift from God," said Villafuerte. "The results were dramatic. I was back in my wheelchair and I was able to spend Christmas with my family." What most concerns Angel now is her dream to initiate a program that would provide MS patients with the drugs they need, at low cost, and the opportunities for productive lives. "Don’t lose hope," she said to all MS patients. "We can rise above our disabilities."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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