MS cases on the rise in Hispanic community

LOS ANGELES Three years ago, doctors told 34-year-old Jessica Parra she had a pinched nerve. Her right side went numb. She was extremely exhausted and that's not all.

"I had extreme skin sensitivity," said Parra. "Everything that touched me hurt."

She went two years without treatment. Finally when she collapsed and went to an ER, she got the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

"I didn't know," said Parra. "I didn't know to think it was MS. I didn't know what MS was."

Multiple sclerosis occurs when the body's own immune system destroys something called the myelin sheath that encases nerve cells. The breakdown can happen in the brain and spinal cord.

USC's Dr. Lilyana Amezcua says MS cases are rising in minority populations. She is following patients in the Hispanic population to find clues toward a potential cure.

"When the disease happens in the minorities it commonly has different features," said Dr. Amezcua.

African-Americans are more likely to have more destruction and a rapid escalation of symptoms. In Asians, the disease tends to affect the optical nerve and motor function.. And Latinos appear to experience a mix of the two.

If MS affects various ethnicities differently, USC researchers say it is possible patients of color will have different needs overall and will need different treatments.

"We don't know if the current available treatments would have the same results in the Hispanic," said Dr. Amezcua.

Researchers hope to find answers. Parra is getting daily shots of Copaxone. Her disease is in remission.

Dr. Amezcua says the cause of MS is a complex interplay of genes and environmental factors such as diet, vitamin D deficiency, and infectious diseases such as Epstein-Barr virus.

If researchers can trace the environmental causes in the Latino population it could lead to some answers about why MS is on the rise.

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