I’ve been walking on the sad side. My mailbox is jammed with dozens of heartrending e-mails from sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS); a terrible disease that is little understood, little researched and hard to diagnose.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which is known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis in many parts of the world, mostly strikes people in their thirties and forties. The disease begins with flu-like symptoms which are often a precursor to a full collapse, often after exercise.
The disease largely disables the immune system; and leads to joint and muscle pain, cognitive dissonance, memory loss, dysphasia and problems with simple math. Sufferers are often confined to bed for months, functioning at a substantially reduced capacity, where the simplest tasks become monumental.
CFS-afflicted authors describe taking years to finish projects that should have taken months. These include Hillary Johnson, whose book “Osler’s Web” is about CFS; Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote the bestseller “Sea Biscuit” while struggling with the disease; and Deborah Waroff, who is writing a book about the Jewish hero Sholom Schwartzbard, but who has found the task dragging on for years, working as she can between severe periods of disability, confined to bed.
The human suffering of both the afflicted and those close to them is incalculable in its awful impact. One woman who e-mailed me wrote: “When I became totally disabled seven years ago, because I had not announced my illness previously, nearly everyone I knew figured the illness was in my head. They were aided and abetted with this sort of reasoning based on how the majority of the medical establishment and media had treated CFS. Like many with CFS, I lost all of my companions and my spouse.”
One of the most hopeful of recent discoveries is also generating a collateral fear. The retrovirus XMRV has been found to be present in CFS patients and has led them to worry about transmitting the disease to family members. One woman who e-mailed me from Britain wrote that her husband contracted the disease after years of nursing her. Who, she asked, will look after them now?
A sufferer in Maryland wrote to me that she worries about her family. She and her husband decided to have a child. They were blessed with triplets – and the return of the mother’s disease. Now she worries for her husband and the three babies.
A man—one-third of victims are male, although the National Institutes of Health treats CFS as a woman’s disease–sums up the anger in the community towards the political establishment, and particularly the Centers for Disease Control which changed the name from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, in a controversial action.
He wrote: “Washington didn’t so much forget – they were never told. The CDC swept it under the carpet, despite the fact that their main raison d’être is to investigate and sort epidemics of new diseases before they take hold. Now, because of the CDC’s wrongdoings, there are more than 1 million people affected in the USA and possibly 17 million worldwide. Most of these people are too sick to stand up for themselves, to fight back.”
Breaking down the e-mails, I find these commonalities:
· Anger at the CDC and, to a lesser extent, the National Institutes of Health and government in general.
· Tremendous suffering and horrendous problems with affording treatment; frequent misdiagnosis, as doctors use a “dustbin” approach that discards all the possibilities until they get to CFS.
· Anger at the media and others for not taking CFS seriously enough.
· The knowledge, with a cure rate of between 4 and 8 percent, that they are awaiting the inevitable in huge discomfort. They are on medical death row.
· Sufferers describing themselves as “living corpses.” Alone with their suffering, many commit suicide.
I’m not a medical writer. Writing about medicine has never interested me. But in a career of writing for newspapers, spanning more than 50 years, I’ve never received so much mail that has so consumed the thought process and torn at the heart.
There is a ghastly disease out there that cries out to be taken seriously, to get proper attention in the medical world, and to be prioritized along with the other big diseases claiming research dollars.