Multiple sclerosis is not an elderly person's disease.

It's just as likely to strike a young mum in the prime of life with children to look after, as Barry Nelson finds out.

"YOU don't have clean carpets in MS homes. You can always blame the stains on the kids," laughs Jeannie Young. The 40-year-old mum is just one of the 85,000 people in the UK who have multiple sclerosis.

What many people don't understand is that most MS sufferers are in their prime, aged between 20 and 40, often with young children to look after.

The devastating disease is the most common disabling neurological condition affecting young adults in the UK, but many people wrongly associate it with the elderly.

For Jeannie, mother of four-year-old Eleanor, problems began with pins and needles and rapidly progressed to make walking increasingly difficult.

"Some days it is just incredibly hard to get up, everything hurts, it feels as if you have been run over by a bus. I can't describe how horrible it is," she says.

Jeannie is one of a group of young mums with MS I met in Darlington to mark MS Awareness Week. All of them were remarkably upbeat and cheerful about living with MS, a disease in which tissue which normally protects nerve fibres is gradually lost, interfering with the normal functioning of the body.

And while she joked about stains on the carpets, I had to carry Jeannie's mug of coffee to a table at Elm Ridge Methodist Church Hall because she was unsteady on her feet.

Jenny Brookstein, an activist with the Darlington and District branch of the MS Society, finds it frustrating that few people realise that most victims of the incurable illness are young people, often with young families.

While the NHS can help MS sufferers with the symptoms of the illness, Jenny feels there is a gaping hole in the support available for young mothers with the disease.

"You have this awful situation when a young mother with MS is suddenly taken ill. She has got to get her child to school, but there's no help," says Jenny, whose own daughter has MS and small children.

"We would like to see some sort of back-up service which would mean that if people have got an emergency and they can't get their children to school, they would be able to get someone to come in and cover," says Jenny, who organises the regular monthly meetings for MS mums. "Having a toddler is hard work but it's so much harder if your legs are bad and you can't walk."

Even on the NHS side, the care is not always ideal. Last week a poll of 3,000 members of the MS Society showed that nearly half (45 per cent) of those diagnosed in the last three years are dissatisfied with the support they received from the NHS at the time. Around one in three members overall (34 per cent) is unhappy with their healthcare generally. No doubt some of those issues will be raised when the MS Society holds its first conference for care professionals working in the North of England on May 16. The Newcastle event will consider what is likely to be in the new guidelines on MS which are expected to be published in June.

One of the reasons why the group was established was to allow women with MS to come together on a regular basis, to provide stimulating company and mutual support.

At first, Jeannie tried to shrug off the pins and needles in her left hand and left arm. "I thought it was just a trapped nerve, then the numbness started to spread," she says.

After MRI scans and a lumbar puncture, she was told she had MS. "My first reaction was total, utter horror. Fortunately, I have a very supportive family and you gradually get used to things and get on with your life," says Jeannie.

Eleanor was six months old when her mother was diagnosed with MS. Once the implications had sunk in for Jeannie and her husband Robert, they decided that it would be unwise to have a larger family.

"I wouldn't have contemplated having another child because of my illness. Eleanor is lovely but it's very hard work when you have MS."

Eleanor understands that her mother is different. "She sometimes asks if I can do something for her and then she will change her mind and say, 'it's all right mummy'," says Jeannie.

Helen Nicholls, 34, also from Darlington, was in a wheelchair when I met her, after suffering a recent major attack. As her three-year-old daughter Laura played happily in the background, Helen explained how MS has invaded her life.

"The first symptoms were eyesight problems and blurry vision. My husband, Geoff, is an optician and diagnosed a condition which is one of the clearest signs of MS," says Laura, a former primary school teacher.

Shortly after Laura was born, Helen had a major attack which left her completely paralysed from the waist down. With a small baby to look after, she had to rely on her family.

"We had a family rota going for about three months. My parents live very near and they have given a tremendous amount of support. Geoff's parents also come in twice a week. Apart from family, there is really no help," she says. "My parents have to help me down the stairs and help me to have a bath." She is receiving regular injections of the drug Beta Interferon to combat her illness.

"It would be so helpful if there was someone who could come in and help me. I could have meals on wheels but I am not the only one who needs feeding and it's not really suitable for my daughter," she says.

Because she lives in North Yorkshire, a difference in services from one area to the next, means Jackie Johnson, 34, from Brompton-on-Swale at least has a social services carer who comes in three times a week to help her at home.

"I suppose I'm very lucky. Because I don't drive it means my three-year-old son Oliver can be taken to nursery. If the help wasn't around, I would have to get a taxi," she says. Like most of the MS group, Jackie says her husband, Peter, could not do more to help at home.

She is all in favour of raising awareness of MS among younger people because she admits she was pretty ignorant about it before she was diagnosed with the illness. "If you ask the average person about MS, they haven't got a clue. I didn't know much about it myself."

Lisa Oates, 32, from Springfield in Darlington, started having mobility problems shortly after she had Louise, now aged three. "I was falling over all of the time and was very clumsy and I had pins and needles at night," says Lisa.

Like the others, Lisa says she has had to rely on family and friends for support. "It would be really helpful if there was some help so you don't have to rely on family too much and can give them a break," she says. Because of her illness Lisa and her husband Paul have also agreed that more children would be out of the question. "It would be lovely for Louise to have brothers and sisters but the way things are it is just not possible. Sometimes I am so tired I can't get out of bed," she says.

Jenny Brookstein feels strongly that the issue of support for families with MS needs to be addressed. "What if your family live miles away. What are you supposed to do then?" she asks.

"I suspect there are a lot of other people out there who don't know about us," says Jenny. "We would love them to get in touch."

* To contact the group ring 01325 720379.