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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 March 2008, 00:22 GMT
Has Neighbours handled MS well?
By Jane Elliott
Health Reporter, BBC News

Susan and Karl. Pictures Channel Five
A distressed Susan shortly after her MRI scan
When the Neighbours character Susan Kinski started to suffer mysterious symptoms, doctors in the soap were baffled.

She had had unusual symptoms for months, even blacking out behind the wheel of a car and being involved in a hit and run.

It was only when Susan was given an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

In the past, soaps have been criticised for their handling of diseases, such as Coronation Street's portrayal of Alma Baldwin's cancer and the Peggy Mitchell breast cancer line in EastEnders.

Handling medical lines

So just how realistic is the Neighbours storyline?

Kristie Johnson, 35, is impressed.

I think they have portrayed it really well
Kristie Johnson

Like Susan, Kristie was at first misdiagnosed with a mini-stoke. She too lost sensation in her hands, and has had problems with her vision, although she has not lost her sight like the soap character.

Kristie, who lives in Uxbridge, says she isn't usually a Neighbours fan, but that the storyline drew her in.

"People were talking about it and it was discussed in the MS Society chat-room, so I did start watching it.

"I think they have portrayed it really well."

Signs and symptoms

Kristie said that although she has never burnt her hands, as Susan did in a recent plotline, she too has touched extremely hot dishes and felt nothing.

But she warns the battle facing the Australian soap will be maintaining the credibility.

Kristie Johnson
Kristie sees some parallels in soap plot

"It will be interesting to see how it goes on after the diagnosis.

"How will they get her to go on from now and do things.

"MS does become part of your life and is not something I think of now," she said.

One of the difficulties in the fictional diagnosis of Susan was her age.

At 52, MS was low down the experts' list.

Dr Alasdair Coles, a neurologist at the Department of Neurology, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, agreed this was an unusual age to develop MS.

"It is very unusual to be diagnosed over 50, but not impossible," he said.

He agreed that MS is difficult to diagnose.

"MS can present with symptoms that can be mistaken for a whole host of other things," he added.

"And the commonest set of symptoms, from the outset would be something like a tingling of the arm, which then goes away by itself.

"The patient, usually a young woman either ignores it, or goes to their GP with it, who says come back in a few weeks if it is still a problem.

"It is usually a very low key start to MS and on the whole it tends to get ignored or dismissed. So it is not so much misdiagnosed as not diagnosed," he said.

Anger over diagnosis

And he confirmed that the common reaction, like that of Susan, is first to doubt the diagnosis and then react against it.

"A diagnosis of MS would class as a bereavement and there are stages of diagnosis the shock, denial, anger, then maybe blame and retribution before some sort of resolution and people with MS have to go through all that," said Dr Coles.

"There are some particular features of MS that make this all the more difficult, or give a special quality to the diagnosis.

Susan Kinski/Kennedy. Pictures Channel Five
Trying to come to terms with her diagnosis

"The first thing that people learn is that it is a very variable condition and it is possible in about 20% of cases to have a near normal life. On the other hand 80% of people will gradually get disabled in one way or another.

"That uncertainty creates stress. It is very difficult to get your head around," he said.

Jenna Litchfield at the MS Society said the Neighbours plotline had sparked interest.

"Soap storylines in which characters are diagnosed with MS help to highlight the condition and its devastating effects.

"As MS is unique to the individual, people will experience the condition in different ways, but we hope storylines such as this offer some insight into what living with MS is like."

The MS Society provides a free phone helpline on 0808 800 8000.

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