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Chicken Pox-Shingles Virus Could be Linked to MS

December 27, 2017

A large survey in the UK was conducted that assessed the frequency of chickenpox and shingles in multiple sclerosis patients, suggesting a link between these diseases. MS researchers believe their findings could help make decisions regarding immunosuppressive treatments and varicella-zoster virus vaccinations.

While scientists are still unsure about the exact cause of MS, several studies do show that the disease is based on complex interactions between environmental and genetic risk factors. Several viruses have also been implicated in MS development.
Varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the cause of chickenpox, does remain in the body after the first infection, primarily staying dominant in the nerves around the spinal-cord. The virus can reactivate later on in life and cause the disease known as shingles, which does occur more frequently in immune-compromised individuals. Treatments that have newer disease-modifying and immunosuppressive medicals for MS patients have actually been linked to the virus’ reactivation.

The T-cells (immune cells that fight infection) mediate the long-lasting immunity to VZV infection, therefore newer treatments that target T-cells have the ability to reduce immune responses against VZV. The team of researchers said it is extremely important to know the “prevalence of a history of VZV exposure, as a primary infection (i.e., a history of chickenpox) or as a reactivation (zoster) [shingles].”

Researchers surveyed 1,206 randomly selected MS patients to assess the frequency of chickenpox and shingles in MS patients. They received a response from 605 patients with a mean age of 53 that had not been using immunosuppressive treatments. Eighty-six percent of them reported having chickenpox, which is comparable to what is expected from the general population. Seventeen patients reported that chickenpox occurred after the onset of MS. Researchers added that this suggests the vaccination against herpes zoster could be considered to help those with MS, namely those that are soon to be treated with disease modifying drugs potentially affecting VZV responses.

Of the 549 patients that had answered on behalf of the shingles portion of the questionnaire, 104 of them reported at least one episode of shingles. This number was found to be higher than expected in a matched general population. In addition to this, there was no difference noted in the shingles rate between male and female patients.

More than half of these patients with a history of shingles also had the disease prior to their development of multiple sclerosis. The team also concluded that those with a zoster infection history seemed to be more common in those with MS than expected in a general MS population.