Significantly more people than previously estimated are living with multiple sclerosis (MS) in Northern Ireland, according to new research.
There are an estimated 4,830 people living with MS in Northern Ireland, with four newly diagnosed every week.
Across the UK more than 130,000 people are living with MS – over 20% more than previously thought.
This is according to a new estimate based on Public Health England data, published by the MS Society.
The society said the “relentless, painful and disabling” condition damages the body’s nerves, which makes it harder for people to do everyday things, like walk, talk, eat and think.
David Galloway, director of MS Society Northern Ireland, said the new figures confirm what his organisation already suspected, and urged Health Minister Robin Swann to act to increase neurologist numbers.
“Northern Ireland is around 20 consultant neurologists short of meeting the needs of people living with or suspected of living with neurological conditions,” he said.
“The latest statistics show over 11,500 people are waiting more than a year for their first time neurology appointment.
“Those already inside the system face waits for treatment, review, diagnostic testing – in many ways they are perpetually waiting.
“People with MS need the health service, Health Minister and Northern Ireland Assembly to step up and create a sustainable system that meets the need.”
There is currently a review of neurology under way.
Mr Galloway urged the minister to “grasp that opportunity”.
Philippa Donnelly, 27, from Belfast, described how she came to be diagnosed with MS at the age of 24.
“My symptoms originally started with a numb leg. I was a keen runner and thought it was a result of training too hard,” she said.
“The numb leg went away after a few months, however soon a numb arm followed. Again, a few months later it went back to normal – to then have the other leg go numb. At this time, I was completing my final year of university, so I put it down to stress.
“After I graduated, I moved to London for a job. The day I moved, I realised I had large black spots in my vision which affected both eyes. I was able to get an eye test that same day in London, however the optician couldn’t explain the vision loss.
“I was recommended to go to a specialised eye hospital in central London where I waited over six hours to meet with one of the top consultants. I was advised there was nothing wrong with my eyes and it was probably due to stress.
“Another year of symptoms went by before I came across the MS Society website due to a charity race they had organised. I had never heard of MS before, however reading the information on the MS Society website, I knew straight away the symptoms they listed described my problems exactly.
“After an appointment with my doctor and a six-month wait for a brain and spinal MRI, I was diagnosed with high-active relapsing MS. Only a few months later I started an infusion treatment, which I seem to be responding to quite well to.
“There are so many misconceptions about MS, and with diagnosis rate increasing, I hope to show that life can continue. You can live well with MS especially when diagnosed and treated early.”