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On CNN & TIME October 24:


Sick and Tired

Chronic fatigue gets a wake-up call for research

(CNN) -- Remember chronic fatigue syndrome? The mysterious illness, dubbed "Yuppie Flu" in the 1980s, is still around. Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates 400,000 Americans over age 18 suffer from this debilitating illness.

It doesn't even spare professional athletes like U.S. Womens Soccer star Michelle Akers who has spent years fighting CFS.

  • The federal government estimates 400,000 Americans are suffering from CFS today
  • In the U.S. the majority of diagnosed cases of CFS occur in women, most of whom are white. Most patients are 25 to 45 years old
  • Patients often regard impaired thinking as one of the most debilitating features of CFS
  • According to the CDC, to be diagnosed with CFS, a person must first have profound fatigue for a minimum of 6 months
  • Both chronic fatiguing illness and CFS are detectable in adolescents, but were less common than is seen in most adult populations.
  • According to the CDC, prevalence of CFS-like illness among adolescents was approximately 20 per 100,000 compared with approximately 200 per 100,000 for various populations of adults.
Coping with chronic illness
  • description
  • risk
  • symptoms
  • treatment
  • prevention
    Source: WebMD

    There is no known cause or cure. Though some sufferers like Akers recover enough to live normal lives, many don't.

    The CDCs case definition for the illness is prolonged and unexplained fatigue lasting at least six months, along with four of eight other symptoms: sore throat, muscle pain, joint pain, swollen lymph glands, short-term memory loss, unrefreshing sleep, headaches and difficulty recovering after exertion. All other possible causes must be ruled out.

    Since CFS is largely a diagnosis of exclusion, patients have had difficulty being taken seriously. Frequently, the disease has been dismissed as hysteria. The failure of medical researchers to develop a diagnostic test for CFS has contributed to this perception.

    But according to patients advocates, one reason CFS remains a medical mystery is because the federal governments premiere lab has not taken it seriously.

    This year, the Inspector General of the Health and Human Service Department found the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had diverted as much as 12.9 million dollars set aside by Congress for chronic fatigue research and spent it on other diseases like polio and measles.

    "It was taken from chronic fatigue syndrome because it was not perceived by the people doing it as important as the other ones," says Dr. William Reeves, the federal employee who blew the whistle on the CDC. "We were set back. There's no question about that."

    The CDCs current director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan has promised to "reinvigorate" CFS research and restore $12.9 million to CFS research in the next four years. Hes also personally apologized to patients and Congressmen on behalf of the CDC.

    While the CDC is recovering from scandal, other researchers funded by the government are making headway. The University of Washingtons Dr. Dedra Buchwald has designed a study with identical twins, one suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and the other healthy.

    Surprisingly, she has found no major differences. Both twins seemed abnormal even though only one was suffering from CFS.

    "Right now our thinking is that there is a group of people that are vulnerable to get CFS," Buchwald says. She believes that some yet to be discovered "trigger" makes these people sick. "Most people that have that predisposition will never get chronic fatigue syndrome."

    If she is right, the idea that heredity plays a role in CFS could lead to new breakthroughs, including a diagnostic test and maybe even a cure.

    Related Stories

    Chronic illness: Acceptance is the first step toward healing
    October 20, 1999
    Fatigue: How to know when to see a doctor
    September 21, 1999

    Related Sites

    CFIDS Association of America
    Centers for Disease Control
    CNN & TIME: The Weekly Newsmagazine

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