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Why Are Women More Likely to Get M.S. and Other Autoimmune Diseases?
Air Date: 05/15/2008
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Why Are Women More Likely to Get M.S. and Other Autoimmune Diseases?

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor:

Now we turn to that series of reports on MEDICAL MYSTERIES this week and a puzzling disease that so many are living with, multiple sclerosis. It affects almost half a million Americans, most of them women. Our report from our chief science correspondent Robert Bazell.

Ms. CATHERINE DENNIS AKAY: I sure wish I could do that with you, hike again.

ROBERT BAZELL reporting:

For Catherine Dennis Akay, diagnosed at 23, one of the toughest parts of her multiple sclerosis is the effect on her family.

ALEXANDER: Why does this happen to you?

Ms. AKAY: Especially her 10-year-old son, Alexander.

Ms. AKAY: I think Alexander has a lot of burdens on him. You know, he worries about me. The messages sent from the brain to my leg to walk get confused.

BAZELL: At school, other kids tease him about his mother.

ALEXANDER: She said my mom was crippled.

BAZELL: Alexander's mom has an autoimmune disease. In this case, the body's natural defenses against disease attack nerve cells, including the brain.

Why is it so much more common in women than in men?

Dr. LINDSEY CRISWELL (University of California, San Francisco): Yes, most of the autoimmune diseases are much more common in women, and we still don't understand exactly why.

Dr. ARI GREEN (University of California, San Francisco): These little white spots there that are abnormal, that's characteristic in multiple sclerosis.

BAZELL: For many scientists and doctors, it is the critical question, the biggest mystery of autoimmune diseases.

Dr. GREEN: We really haven't gotten to the basics of why these diseases occur in the first place. And answering the question of why they occur more in women than men would be a critical first step.

BAZELL: A common hypothesis is that the cells and hormones of a woman's immune system must be different to allow her to carry a fetus.

Dr. STEPHEN HAUSER (University of California, San Francisco): Autoimmune disease may be part of the price that women pay for successful reproduction.

BAZELL: Once an avid athlete, Catherine now devotes much of her time to a charity for MS.

Ms. AKAY: I don't think there's enough support for women who have autoimmune diseases.

BAZELL: Critical, she says, because the diseases affect not just those stricken but the entire family as well.

Ms. AKAY: Have a hug?

BAZELL: Robert Bazell, NBC News, San Francisco.