Annette Funicello may have been the most recognizable face of multiple sclerosis, but she wasn't the disorder's only victim: More than 2.1 million people worldwide are living with MS, including an estimated 1,000 people in Kern County, according to Kimberly Kotrla, director of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society San Joaquin Valley region. Kotrla took the time Monday to answer our questions about the disease.
What is multiple sclerosis? What are the symptoms?
KOTRLA: Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that interrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. Common symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness, poor balance, spasticity, tremors, pain and/or cognitive problems.
The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are moving us closer to a world free of MS. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, although MS can occur in young children and older adults. Women are at least two to three times more likely to develop MS than men.
What are the causes?
KOTRLA: MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease, but we still do not know the cause. Scientists believe that a combination of several factors may be involved. Studies indicate that genetic factors make certain individuals susceptible to the disease, but there is no evidence that MS is directly inherited. Understanding what causes MS will be an important step toward finding more effective ways to treat it and -- ultimately -- cure it, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place.
Is it fatal?
KOTRLA: MS is not a fatal disease. Most individuals with MS have near-normal life expectancies; however, if the MS progression is very severe, there could be complications.
What are common treatments?
KOTRLA: There are now 10 FDA-approved disease-modifying treatments available for relapsing forms of MS. The 10th treatment was just approved two weeks ago. These therapies have been shown to be effective in reducing disease activity. There are also many medications to relieve or moderate MS symptoms.
Where in Bakersfield can MS patients/caregivers go for support, other resources?
KOTRLA: The National MS Society in Kern County provides information, referrals, support groups, and direct services for individuals with MS and their families. We partner with organizations such as Terrio-Therapy Fitness, Total Woman Fitness, and HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital to offer dynamic lifestyle programs that address fall prevention, cognitive and mobility issues, nutritional and emotional health. The National MS Society provides many financial assistance programs, caregiver support, and newly diagnosed counseling.
Was the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at all active locally?
KOTRLA: When Annette Funicello went public with her MS diagnosis, she raised much-needed awareness about this unpredictable, chronic disease. In 1993, Ms. Funicello opened the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation. She also donated a portion of the proceeds from her line of unique bears from the popular Annette Funicello Collectible Bear Company to the National MS Society. In 2002, Ms. Funicello accepted the role of Ambassador for the Society's Walk MS event. She encouraged fans to form "Annette's Amazing Angels" Walk MS teams in her honor to help educate the public and heighten awareness about the challenges of living with MS. Although in later years her public appearances became fewer as her MS complications worsened, Ms. Funicello remained committed to the mission of the National MS Society and to all those impacted by MS and that is to end the disease forever.