Background: The observation that the incidence of multiple sclerosis (MS) increases further from the equator has prompted considerable interest in the factors that might underlie this latitude gradient. Potential candidates include population frequencies of disease-associated Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) alleles which are the major genetic component of MS susceptibility. Ultraviolet (UV) exposure and smoking have also been implicated as key environmental risk factors.
Methods: We used multiple sources of published data on MS prevalence, HLA allele frequencies, UV index and cigarette smoking to assess the contributions of both nature and nurture to the distribution of MS within Europe.
Results: We observed that HLA alleles unequivocally interact with a population-wide level to determine disease risk. The UV index and smoking behaviour was also shown to correlate with disease distribution in Europe. For countries with HLA, UV and smoking data, these three factors were shown to account for 75% of the variance in MS prevalence.
Conclusions: Genetic (HLA) and environmental (UV and smoking) risk factors thus interact in a complex manner with each other to determine a large proportion of MS susceptibility within Europe.