CDC: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 'Real'
Health Officials Call on Doctors and Public to Take Disease Seriously
Fight for Legitimacy
American medical history is rife with examples of diseases not deemed "real" until their physical cause was found.
Depression, long ignored and stigmatized, quickly found legitimacy when researchers realized imbalanced neurotransmitters were more to blame than bad parenting or a lack of personal fortitude.
Now, it appears chronic fatigue syndrome is poised for such a graduation.
Recent scientific findings have linked the problem to abnormalities in the body's autonomic nervous system, which controls blood pressure, heart rate, and other functions.
Meanwhile, genomic studies are beginning to suggest that sufferers carry genes leading their bodies to overreact to stress. In such people, significant stressors like trauma or a major infection could trigger an overresponse that takes the form of chronic fatigue.
"I'm not talking about minor events like public speaking," says William Reeves, MD, director of the CDC's chronic viral diseases branch.
A study published in the BMJ in September found 12% of patients who had serious infections wound up with chronic fatigue symptoms six months later.
Other studies have suggested the illness stems from some kind of hyper-reactive immune system -- easily switched into action but hard to turn off.
While the evidence is not definitive, it goes against long-held notions that chronic fatigue syndrome is a figment of patients' imaginations, says Anthony Komaroff, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
"In my view ... that debate should be over," he says.
Still, theories about a cause remain theories.
Reeves acknowledges that chronic fatigue syndrome is highly variable and unlikely to come with a simple explanation. "There may be more than one."
The CDC wants physicians to understand how to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome, Gerberding says, "but more importantly be able to validate and understand the incredible suffering."