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As recently as 15 years ago, many people in the medical community viewed MS as a disease that predominantly affected those of European descent.

But is it just less studied? A 2015 article written by six noted MS researchers and published in Neurology Clinical Practice, reported that out of nearly 60,000 published articles about MS, only 113, or about 0.2 percent, focus on African-Americans.

Studies show:
  • A 2012 study of military personnel published in Military Medicine reported 46 percent more cases of MS in blacks than in non-Hispanic whites.
  • And a 2013 study found that blacks had a 47 percent increased risk of MS compared with whites. The study, which was published in Neurology, also found that among blacks, women had triple the risk of MS compared with men. This mirrors the increased risk of MS among women of northern European ancestry.
The myth that black people do not get MS is just that — a myth. With such pervasive evidence of MS in African-Americans, doctors consider it as a potential diagnosis much more readily now.

Different symptoms

There’s some evidence that MS can manifest differently and be especially active in African-Americans:
  • more likely to experience more relapses
  • more likely to experience greater disability
  • have a greater risk of progressing to require ambulatory assistance earlier
  • more likely to develop involvement of the optic nerves and spinal cord (optic-spinal MS) and inflammation of the spinal cord (transverse myelitis). A 2004 study published in Neurology reported optic-spinal MS occurs in 17 percent of African-Americans compared with 8 percent of Caucasians. And transverse myelitis affects 28 percent of African-Americans with MS compared with 18 percent of Caucasians.
Unlike subtler MS symptoms, mobility and vision issues can spur a person to visit a doctor more quickly. And that may be why the study found that once they get medical attention for their symptoms, African-Americans tend to be diagnosed with MS faster than white people (one year after symptom onset for blacks compared with two years for whites).

Vision issues (video)

Optic Neuritis

People living with multiple sclerosis share their experiences with optic neuritis, and neuro-opthalmologist Tariq Bhatti, MD from Duke University Medicine discusses management and treatment options.

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Participate in medical research

Research on who gets MS, prognosis, and which treatments are most effective are critical to disease management.  Medical research on MS has historically not included people of ethnic and racial minorities.  To best inform African Americans with MS about their disease, it is essential that they participate in research.  Otherwise, recommendations are based off conclusions from studies of other ethnic groups and races. 

Learn more about how you could be Making a Difference in MS Through Research in this article from the MS Minority Research Engagement Partnership Network. 

Different populations are being studied to learn why some ethnic groups develop MS at higher rates than others. The MS Genetics Group is asking for the donation of a blood samples from African-American individuals with MS and controls without MS. It is not required, but the participation of certain family members is preferred as well.

Additional video resources

Living with MS: African American Perspectives

MS and African Americans: Reasons for Hope

MS and African Americans: Diagnosis and Clinical Courses

Additional resources


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