MS outbreaks to be probed

MS outbreaks to be probed

By Joe Baker, Senior Editor

Researchers from the University of Illinois College of Medicine are hoping to solve a mystery. Four Illinois communities have recorded an unusual number of multiple sclerosis cases. Medical investigators want to know why.

In the small town of Paw Paw, just south of Rockford, Harold Ikeler lost his wife to the disease. It also put one of his daughters into a wheelchair and attacked two others.

Two Paw Paw women decided to make a list of those affected by the debilitating disease. The list grew to 13 names. That made Ikeler, a retired farm machinery salesman, wonder if there’s something in this town of 850 people that is causing this outbreak.

“The ongoing theory is it needs a trigger to start it,” Ikeler said. “What the trigger is, I have no idea. It’s a mystery.”

That has prompted the medical college to make plans to investigate outbreaks of the disease in Paw Paw, Lewiston, Savanna, Morrison and DePue.

The study is one of five in the U.S. that have received about $100,000 recently from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is a sister agency to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Joel Cowen, head of the Health Systems Research Unit at the medical school, said scientists hope to begin their study in the spring.

They will try to verify what residents of those towns already know—rates of the disease are much higher in their communities than the national average of one case per 1,000 persons. If the numbers check out, they will represent some of the highest rates in the world.

Monica Smith, a resident of Lewiston who was diagnosed with MS two years ago, said: “Lewiston has 2,700 people and I’ve got 14 names. Something is drastically wrong here.”

“We’re 16 times the national average,” said Beth Buffington, who started checking on the disease in Paw Paw after her best friend contracted the disorder two years ago. It was Buffington who prevailed on medical authorities to include the town in their study.

Multiple sclerosis attacks the central nervous system, destroying the myelin sheath, protective tissue which surrounds nerve bundles. The result can be blindness, paralysis, death or intermittent symptoms.

Many theories exist as to why MS struck these towns. Several of which are derived from the idea that they are all in agricultural areas. “I say it’s got something to do with what we do with our ground,” said Velma Kreuder of Savanna. Her nephew’s wife has the disease. “That girl lived on a farm, and my theory is it has something to do with all the fertilizer and that stuff they put in the ground and we all breathe,” she said.

In Savanna, on the Mississippi River, residents are suspicious that the Savanna Army Depot, where bombs and ammunition used to be made, tested and stored, may be responsible in some way.

Smith wonders if Lewiston’s cases might be related to the time when Chicago’s treated sewage was shipped along the Illinois River to the Lewiston area and spread on fenced-in fields.

“They tested the groundwater,” Smith said, “and never came up with anything…but it is awfully coincidental.”

In DePue, residents wonder about a zinc smelter that ran there until the late 1980s. In 1999, the plant was designated a Superfund site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In Morrison and Paw Paw, the theories are more far-fetched. Ikeler said the last industry in Paw Paw was a tile factory that blew up before he was born. Ikeler is 70 years old.

The majority of the residents of the affected towns say they welcome the planned research. “This study is a relief,” said Smith, “because it means somebody is looking at this and saying something’s wrong. If they find a higher rate, it will lead to more investigation.”

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