Friday, December 23, 2011

Longing for a Cause

The summer before last I got really sick. For about two weeks I felt miserable: aches in my head and body, dizziness, weakness, intestinal issues. I went to my doctor, mainly to see if I had Lyme disease, but when my tests ruled out a bacterial infection I got frustrated and said, "I don't want to be one of those people who has fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome." He said, "Don't worry, only ladies get those."

I eventually got better, although it took more than a month for me to fully recover. I suppose it was some strange virus. But maybe not; maybe it was just my body's reaction to something I ate or something that bit me.

Other people with similar conditions don't get better. They feel weak and achy for years or decades, some of them all the time, others episodically. They work their way through the available pain killers, try different diets and exercise routines, read lots of articles about the latest explanation for their problems. Doctors like mine treat them as hypochondriacs, and some surely are, but this lack of respect for their suffering makes some bitter with the system that ignores their pain.

What many of these sufferers really want is confirmation that they really have a physical problem. So whenever research hints at a biological cause, they leap at this vindication of their pain. Thus the huge excitement generated by the publication, in October 2009, of a study claiming that xenotrophic murine leukemia-related virus (XMRV) had been found in the blood of 68 of 101 chronic fatigue patients.

Alas, attempts to replicate this finding by a dozen other labs all failed, and then earlier this year it was shown that the XMRV almost certainly came from lab contamination rather than the patients' blood. Now the editors of Science have officially withdrawn the original study, meaning that it is no longer part of their record.

So whatever causes chronic fatigue, it isn't XMRV, and people will have to keep wondering what it is that makes them miserable.

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