The debilitating disease multiple sclerosis could be caused by the common virus behind “kissing disease”, scientists claim.
A new study from Harvard University suggests the chronic disease could be from an infection of Epstein-Barr, a herpes virus that causes infectious mononucleosis.
Mono or glandular fever, as it’s otherwise known, is colloquially known as “the kissing disease” for being highly contagious through saliva.
While causing fatigue, fever, rash, and swollen glands, researchers propose that the Epstein-Barr virus could also establish a latent, lifelong infection that may be a leading cause of multiple sclerosis.
Affecting 2.8 million people, there is no known cure for the chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system.
Research published in the journal Science on Thursday looked at 955 young adults who were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while on active service in the military.
Compared with samples from 10 million military members, they found the risk of MS increased by a factor of 32-times after being infected by the Epstein-Barr virus. No other virus increased the risk of MS.
“The hypothesis that EBV causes MS has been investigated by our group and others for several years, but this is the first study providing compelling evidence of causality,” the study’s senior author Alberto Ascherio, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School, said in a press release.
“This is a big step because it suggests that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping EBV infection, and that targeting EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS.”
Stopping Epstein-Barr could be difficult, however, as about 95 per cent of adults are infected with the herpes virus.
Mr Ascherio says the delay between contracting the virus and developing MS symptoms could be due to the immune system being repeatedly stimulated when the latent virus reactivates.
The disease causes the immune system to attack neurons in the brain and spinal cord, which can permanently damage the central nervous system. In severe cases, people can lose their ability to walk.
“Currently there is no way to effectively prevent or treat EBV infection, but an EBV vaccine or targeting the virus with EBV-specific antiviral drugs could ultimately prevent or cure MS,” Mr Ascherio said.