Public still doesn't understand MS, experts say

UAE hosts month of events to raise awareness of what it means to have Multiple Sclerosis

Fatima Makhlouf manages her condition with exercise. Photo: National MS Society
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People with multiple sclerosis (MS) are still living with a condition not fully understood by the general public, experts say.

A lack of knowledge on the condition was especially prevalent among the potential partners and employers.

“Awareness needs to be raised among the public and employers,” said consultant neurologist at Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City and member of the NMSS, Dr Ahmed Shatila.

“There are still some people who don’t want to get married to those with MS and many employers don’t understand employees with MS."

Dr Shatila's comments coincided with the National MS Society's (NMSS) launch of the Move for MS scheme during Ramadan, to encourage the wider community to support those living with the condition.

“We have come a long way. We have gone leaps and bounds but we aren’t there yet,” he said.

What is MS?

MS is an immune disorder caused by damage to the protective layer of nerve fibres (myelin), which allows nerves to transmit impulses to and from the brain.

Symptoms vary from person to person based on the location of the affected nerve fibres, and the severity of impact on the central nervous system.

Common symptoms of MS
  • Fatigue
  • numbness and tingling
  • Loss of balance and dizziness
  • Stiffness or spasms
  • Tremor
  • Pain
  • Bladder problems
  • Bowel trouble
  • Vision problems
  • Problems with memory and thinking

While there is currently no cure for the neurological disorder, treatments are widely available to manage the symptoms and help to delay its progression.

The Move for MS initiative offers a range of activities for people with the condition including walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and hiking.

Participants from all backgrounds are encouraged to take part in the scheme, which also coincides with World Multiple Sclerosis Month, taking place throughout March.

More than 2,100 people across the country are taking part in Move for MS, with more than 20,000km being recorded so far by those taking part.

Fear of revealing condition

One UAE resident living with the condition said education around MS needs to improve.

“There definitely needs to be more awareness about MS among the public and provisions for people with MS in the workplace," said Syrian-American health coach Fatima Makhlouf, 47.

"Some people are not comfortable revealing their diagnosis because of potential bias and stigma. MS is a condition that can be managed with support, understanding and compassion.”

Ms Makhlouf has found exercise is key to managing her symptoms, with a focus on more sustainable activities.

“I always say that the best exercise for MS is the thing you do consistently,”

“So if you love swimming, do swimming, if you love yoga, do yoga.

“Finding an exercise that fits your lifestyle, there are different exercises that can help. Just get into the habit. How much time you spend exercising doesn't matter.”

UAE figures

Findings by the NMSS also show that the prevalence of the disease in the UAE is much higher than the global average.

There are 65 people living with MS for every 100,000 people in the country.

Young adults aged 18 to 39 make up the largest group of people living with the disease in the UAE, accounting for 64.3 per cent of all cases.

People aged 40-59 comprise the second-largest group, with 31 per cent of cases.

Globally, the level of MS is higher in women, which is mirrored in the UAE, with more than 65 per cent of affected people being female.

Another expert urged the public to get behind the campaign.

“Through this initiative, we aim to garner support for people living with this condition; to make them feel included, ensure that they are visible and know how much we care about their well-being,” said Dr Fatima Al Kaabi, vice chair of the NMSS.

“Raising awareness is a significant aspect of NMSS’s work and the funds raised from this initiative will go towards support and research.”

Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:52 PM
Common symptoms of MS
  • Fatigue
  • numbness and tingling
  • Loss of balance and dizziness
  • Stiffness or spasms
  • Tremor
  • Pain
  • Bladder problems
  • Bowel trouble
  • Vision problems
  • Problems with memory and thinking