Multiple sclerosis prevalence rising in Middle East, doctors say

Israel has the highest rate of cases in the region, followed by Kuwait

A carer assists a woman with multiple sclerosis in her home. Lindsey Parnaby / AFP
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The Middle East has risen to a moderate-to-high prevalence category for cases of multiple sclerosis, up from low-to-moderate, in the span of a few decades.

Doctors said the number of cases per 10,000 people continues to climb across the region, particularly among women under the age of 40.

On World MS Day, held annually on May 30, healthcare professionals said this was in line with a global trend of rising cases.

The incurable neurological disorder, which affects the brain and spinal cord, is degenerative and can lead to loss of sensation or movement. This is caused by the immune system attacking the protective layer that covers nerve fibres (the myelin sheath), preventing brain signals from properly reaching the body.

MS is known to affect up to four times more women than men and, while it is not genetic, people related to someone with the condition are more likely to develop it.

Dr Roberto Bolano, consultant neurologist at Fakeeh University Hospital in the UAE, said prevalence across the Middle East had risen considerably over the past few decades.

“This puts an additional burden on the Middle Eastern countries and the patients, as the cost of managing MS is high, with timely care and diagnosis being of utmost importance,” he said.

Symptoms can include loss of sensation, slurred speech, fatigue, dizziness and tingling or pain in parts of the body. The condition can also affect vision.

There is no cure but some medications can help control symptoms, commonly referred to as attacks. However, medication and treatments are costly and can add up to tens of thousands of dollars every year.

“[The] latest research data shows MS is on the rise, especially in Middle East women. The prevalence is rising even globally, and thus in the Middle East too,” Dr Bolano said.

He attributed this rise to early detection and diagnoses, as well as lifestyle. Studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency, which is common across much of the Gulf, can increase the chances of developing MS.

Other reasons for the rise in cases, Dr Bolano said, were reduced physical activity, smoking, and higher levels of stress. Longer survival of patients due to medical advancements may also contribute to a recorded increased prevalence, studies said.

“Spreading awareness about the onset of the condition and its symptoms — and encouraging people to get screened earlier — can help in reducing the incidence in the region,” Dr Bolano said.

Roughly 2.8m people are currently living with MS worldwide, said the third Atlas of MS report released by the MS International Federation, which works with the World Health Organisation, in September 2020. This is up from 2.3m global cases in 2013.

The report showed that a much larger number of children and young people under 18 were living with MS than was previously known. It also confirmed the disparity between the prevalence among women and men.

The highest rates found in the Middle East are in Israel, where 151 people in 10,000 have MS. Kuwait reported the second-highest rates with 105 cases in 10,000 people.

Doctors said this could also be due to increased testing and improvements in testing accuracy.

As of 2020, seven in 10,000 people — or 684 people — were reported to have MS in the UAE, with the average age of diagnosis being 28.

Updated: June 02, 2023, 10:34 AM