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Annette Funicello captured the hearts of millions who watched the Mickey Mouse Club, a TV icon produced by Walt Disney Productions. Disney launched the show in 1955 with Funicello part of the team.

Funicello’s life brought hope for M.S. advancements

by Andrew Holik
Apr 9, 2013

Annette Funicello put a personal face to multiple sclerosis and that legacy lives on in research and hope, colleagues said Tuesday as they mourned her death.

Funicello, America’s sweetheart since she joined the Mouseketeers, lost her long battle with M.S. and died of related complications on Monday. But she won her campaign to bring awareness and research to a disease with limited treatments and visibility when she contracted it.

Now, 26 years later, M.S. advocates says they hope her life and death bring continued awareness to the illness as new therapies are developed to stabilize symptoms of the disease and the ability to live with it.

“Her name will certainly live on for people with M.S. and for people diagnosed with M.S. in the future,” said Arney Rosenblat, Associate Vice President of Public Affairs for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Funicello, 70, is known for her roles on the “Mickey Mouse Club” and as a teen idol in a series of beach party films with Frankie Avalon.

“She tried everything you could try, but the disease was impervious to it,” said former Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr, who, like Funicello, donned the trademark mouse ears in 1955.

The disease is familiar to Burr, whose mother lived with M.S. for 40 years. The last time he saw Funicello, in 2007, the disease had completely taken over, he said.

“I wanted to be there for her, but there was nothing I could do,” said Burr, who recently published the book “Confessions of an Accidental Mousketeer.”

M.S. is a disease that is more commonly found in women where the immune system attacks myelin, the fatty insulation in nerve cells, so that information cannot travel clearly through the cells. 

The disease is highly individualistic, meaning the symptoms are determined by which part of the nervous system cells are affected.

At the time Funicello was diagnosed in 1987, M.S. affected her footwork and coordination to the point where tabloids began to speculate about alcoholism.  Funicello put those rumors to rest by revealing her condition to the public in 1992.

“Our hearts went out to her,” Rosenblat said. “We appreciated her going public.”

“Because of who she was, it helped people care about M.S.,” she said.

At the time Funicello publicized her disease, no medications were available meant to specifically treat M.S. 

The FDA approved the first drug to treat M.S. in 1993.  Today there are 10 FDA-approved medications to treat M.S.

“The era is really changing,” said Dr. Joy Derwenskus, a specialist in osteopathic medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and a neurology professor at Northwestern University"s Feinberg School of Medicine. “We just had a new drug approved two weeks ago and there are multiple trials on drugs for M.S. right now.”

Derwenskus said these medications can slow down the progress of the disease, decreasing the risk of developing frequent symptom-attacks - especially the attacks early in the disease that accumulate disability over time.

However, Derwenskus said, “The challenging thing is these medications often work best in the early stages of the disease, when M.S. is newly diagnosed.”

Derwenskus said that as M.S. progresses into later stages, it becomes significantly tougher to treat and the results are less effective.

At that point the first FDA-approved therapy was introduced, Funicello’s condition had begun to progress from relapsing M.S., the disease affecting 85 percent of all M.S. patients, the symptoms alternate on and off, but the next stage secondary progressive M.S., the slow progression where there are no longer relapses or attacks but a gradual accumulation of disabilities. 

Derwenskus said it is complications from these accumulated disabilities, such as pneumonia and urinary track infections, are what can lead to death, not M.S. itself.

“Before drugs were available, about half of people with M.S. would develop more progressive symptoms, such as Annette’s inability to walk, and when people with M.S. are less active they become more disabled and have a greater risk of getting these complications.”

Funicello became an advocate for M.S. awareness, appearing as the spokeswoman for the National M.S. Society and establishing the Annette Funicello Research Fund in 1993.

“She was a much beloved human being,” Rosenblat said.  “You wanted things to go well for her.”

Burr said her M.S. progressed to the point that it had taken away everything: "Your vision. Your ability to speak. Your arms and legs. Everything.”

“Because of who she was, it helped people care about M.S.,” Rosenblat said. “Her involvement rallied people to the M.S. movement.  It made people with M.S. feel important.”