Teachers are more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than other professionals, according to US researchers. They hope the finding will help to unravel the causes of multiple sclerosis and other disorders in which the immune system turns against the body?s own cells.

Stephen Walsh and Laurie DeChello, at Connecticut University, analyzed the death certificates of more than 860,000 ?professional? Americans. Overall, teachers were 13 per cent more likely to die from multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune disorders. But secondary school teachers aged between 35 and 44 were 143 per cent more likely to have an autoimmune disease listed on their death certificate. ?That?s a pretty substantial figure,? says Walsh.

Rheumatoid arthritis is known to be triggered by infection with Streptococcus A bacteria. ?There is also a body of research that links infection with the Epstein-Barr virus with multiple sclerosis,? Walsh adds. Walsh and DeChello think that teachers? relatively high exposure to a large number of children with a variety of viruses could explain their increased risk of death from an autoimmune disease.

This finding could help researchers trying to identify the causes of multiple sclerosis, for example. ?Identifying populations with unusually high mortality rates from autoimmune disease provides us with a potentially fruitful setting in which to study risk factors,? Walsh says.

He thinks the finding that secondary school teachers are at greater risk of dying from an autoimmune disease than elementary school teachers is particularly interesting. Infection with Epstein-Barr virus, a member of the herpes family, is commonly seen in children of secondary school or college age but not in younger children.

Walsh stresses that a teacher’s overall risk of dying from an autoimmune disease is still low. However, autoimmune diseases are often not listed on death certificates. This means a teacher?s risk of developing multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis is likely to be even higher than the new data suggests.

Their findings are published in The Journal of Rheumatology, Vol. 28, page 1537.

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