A growing number of people in the UK are living with multiple sclerosis (MS), despite decreases in those being newly diagnosed with the condition, a study has found.
Researchers at the University of Dundee analysed data spanning two decades from GP surgeries across the country.
They found that between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living with MS increased by about 2.4% a year, even though there was a fall in the numbers being diagnosed.
The reason is that people with MS are living longer, with mortality rates falling by about 3% per year over the same 20-year period, according to the study.
The findings have “important implications” for resource allocation for MS in the UK, the researchers said.
MS is a neurological disease with no cure in which the coating of the nerve fibres is damaged, causing a range of symptoms.
It can lead to high levels of disability and impaired life quality.
The costs of the disease in the UK, including health and social care and productivity losses, are “high” and correlate with the severity of the disease, the study said.
In the research paper, published by the British Medical Journal, an outline of the study’s principal findings stated: “We estimate that the prevalence of MS in the UK in 2010, including diagnoses obtained from Hospital Episode Statistics (HES), was 289 per 100,000 in women and 115 per 100,000 in men.
“The overall prevalence of MS increased by approximately 2.4% per year between 1990 and 2010 in women and men.
“This increase in prevalence was due to a convergence of absolute mortality rates in patients with and without MS, the result of mortality rates falling by about 3% per year in both groups.”
The paper continued: “We observed a decline in the rate at which new cases of MS were diagnosed, and the rising prevalence rate can likely be accounted for by trends in mortality rates.”
In other findings, researchers estimate that, in the UK, just over 6,000 people were diagnosed with MS during 2010 and there were nearly 127,000 people living with the condition that year.
The peak age at which the condition was diagnosed was between 40 and 50.
Multiple sclerosis was also found to be much more common in women than in men, with 72% of those living with MS in 2010 being female.
It was also more common in Scotland than in other parts of the UK.
Dr Isla Mackenzie, clinical senior lecturer at the university’s medicines monitoring unit, led the study.
She said, “Our research covers four million patients from a representative sample of GP practices spread throughout the UK.
“This study provides an up to date national picture of the epidemiology of MS in the UK.
“It is important to have this information on the prevalence of MS in order to understand the impact of this disease and to ensure that adequate resources are provided both nationally and regionally for people affected by MS.”
Dr Jonathan O’Riordan, consultant neurologist at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, said: “There are probably genetic and environmental factors at play to explain why it is more common in Scotland.
“The vast majority of newly diagnosed patients will have the relapsing remitting form of the disease and will be eligible for consideration of disease-modifying therapies.
“These can cost anywhere from £5,500 to nearly £20,000 per year.
“This has ongoing cost implications for healthcare providers.”
The study used data from the General Practice Research Database, which contains patient records from 8% of GP practices in the UK.
It was funded by the Multiple Sclerosis National Therapy Centres (MSNTC), a registered charity.
MSNTC chairman Neil Kemsley said: “As more people in the UK are living longer with MS, the help and support provided by the network of therapy centres throughout the country will become even more valuable and important in helping them to achieve the best possible quality of life.”
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