If you’re like most Australians, you’ve probably never heard of the Epstein-Barr virus – but there is a very strong chance you’ve had it.
Part of the herpes family of viruses, antibodies for the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) are found in nine out of 10 adults, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning they either currently have, or have had, an EBV infection.
The spotlight is on EBV because a study published last week has identified a link between the virus and the onset of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). A link between the two has long been suspected but has been very hard to identify, precisely because of 90 per cent of the world’s population have contracted EBV at some point, but only a tiny proportion of those develop MS.
The study, published in the journal Science, was able to overcome this statistical hurdle by studying more than 10 million young adults on active duty in the US military, 955 of whom were diagnosed with MS during their period of service.
The study found that the risk of MS increased 32-fold after infection with EBV, but was not increased after infection with other viruses, including the similarly transmitted cytomegalovirus.
The study’s authors found that only one of the 955 who developed MS tested negative for antibodies against the Epstein-Barr virus, leading to a finding that suggested EBV was the leading cause of MS.
How is it likely that you’ve had EBV without knowing about it?
EBV is a very common virus in children and, like many childhood illnesses, displays either no symptoms at all or symptoms that are mild and very similar to other common illnesses. Teenagers and adults are more likely to get symptoms and may experience fatigue for weeks or, in some cases, even months.
The virus then becomes inactive and remains so in most people, although it can reactivate at a later time in some. Reactivated cases will often again present without any symptoms, although those who are immunocompromised are more likely to be symptomatic.
How is EBV spread?
As with other viruses in the herpes family, EBV can be transmitted via saliva through kissing, by sharing food and items such as cups and toothbrushes, or by touching a toy on which a child has drooled.
Despite the compelling evidence of a link between EBV and MS, it remains unclear why such a small percentage of those who have contracted EBV go on to develop multiple sclerosis.
You have previously been diagnosed with EBV, should you be worried?
The simple answer is no. With 90 per cent of the adult population carrying EBV antibodies and MS being very rare, the increase in risk for those who have had EBV is extremely small. A 2020 study showed that only 35.9 per 100,000 (0.0359 per cent) of the population worldwide live with MS.
While standard hygienic measures (such as not sharing drinks and food) can reduce the risk of contracting EBV, there is no vaccine available for its prevention. Several groups are, however, working towards one.
The identification of EBV as a likely trigger for MS is potentially very good news. Stanford University’s William Robinson and Lawrence Steinman say “now that the initial trigger for multiple sclerosis has been identified, perhaps multiple sclerosis could be eradicated”.
Have you been diagnosed with EBV? What were your symptoms? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?
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