In 2010, I made more friends than in all of my life. They are scattered across the United States and around the world. But for their sake, I wish they had never heard of me.
Sadly, my new friends know me only because I have taken up their cause. I have written and broadcast about their plight, and they have responded by pouring out their hearts to me.
For very minor service, I have received more gratitude, more praise and more life stories than from anything I have written or broadcast in five decades in journalism.
My sad, suffering new friends are victims of a grossly misnamed disease: chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It was once known more robustly as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), which at least suggests seriousness even if it isn't quite accurate. Myalgic describes pain in the joints and encephalomyelitis, inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. CFS has no known cure, and varies in intensity during the sufferer's lifetime.
In 1988, the Centers for Disease Control named the disease chronic fatigue syndrome after an outbreak in 1985 at the Incline Village resort on Lake Tahoe, Nev.
As far back as the 18th century there were recorded outbreaks of the disease, which was given various given names. In 1955, there was a major outbreak at the Royal Free Hospital in London.
The 300-case cluster in Nevada is generally recognized to be the largest in the United States. The second-largest cluster occurred in Lyndonville, NY, a northwestern hamlet where 216 cases were confirmed in a population of fewer than 1,000, also in l985.
A Lyndonville physician, David Bell, is regarded as one of the true experts on CFS, as well as one of the most dispassionate in the controversies that swirl around the disease. Bell has resisted pressure from both the medical establishment and patients' groups while retaining their respect.
As I see it, there are four controversies that plague discussion, research and therapies:
Is it a psychological disease with severe physical manifestations (a diagnosis favored by the British medical establishment)?
Is it caused by the new retrovirus XMRV (first spotted in prostate cancers) as some researchers believe, and nearly all the 1 million patients in the United States pray will lead to a cure?
Some charge there is a conspiracy in the medical establishment to downplay CFS out of guilt over past indifference, or pressure from the psychiatric practitioners who are reluctant to surrender jurisdiction.
Others fear a threat to the general population — clusters confirm CFS is contagious. But the pathway of the pathogen (air, blood, sexual intercourse, surfaces, food) or how great the risk is unknown.
Thanks to the Harvey Whittemore family — daughter Andrea Whittemore Goad has been a CFS sufferer since childhood — some serious, privately-funded research is being done at the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) in Reno, Nev.
It is from this institute that the most compelling evidence of a retroviral role in CFS has originated. But recently, it has been refuted by British scientists who claim there was contamination in the tests, skewing the results.
Dr. Judith Mikovits of WPI rejects the British conclusions of contamination. She is very confident that she has found XMRV present in a majority of CFS patients, contending that she has used four methods of analysis against one in Britain.
Bell, the hands-on doctor from New York, told me he believes the virus is present. Yet only when XMRV is irrefutably proven to be to blame can the search for a cure take shape.
These are among issues that will be discussed on April 6-7 at a “state of the science” meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. But there is no expectation that anything very new will be revealed as the debate rages daily on the Internet.
Deborah Waroff, a gifted New York City author, former securities analyst and CFS sufferer for 22 years, tells the story of her first attack this way: “I have no idea how I got it. I had the symptoms of flu. After a week, thinking I was pretty well, I went back to my normal activities like biking and tennis. Then after a week, I was sick again. This repeated several times that summer , until I got to a point where I was never well again. After a little activity, I would collapse, fold up.” Often, Waroff is bedridden, and nothing has improved permanently.
Her symptoms were classic; fever, dizziness, stomach upset, swollen lymph glands and frequent headaches. She developed cognitive problems such as putting the wrong words in sentences, known as dysphasia.
Waroff introduced me to my new friends and their terrible witness to suffering, abandonment and medical indifference. Their families break up, their spouses and lovers drift off. Infected parents worry for their children. One correspondent told me that they are the “unburied dead.” Others said they were “living in coffins.”
They have no celebrity spokesperson. They have no Washington lobby fighting for research dollars. They have no hope that a cure is just around the corner; and little confidence that government research organizations are trying hard enough, if at all, to find one. To know them is to peer into hell. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate