From The Guardian, 20 October 2009
The militant wing of the Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) brigade broke out the champagne when a recent article in Science reported that a retrovirus had been found in 67% of ME patients compared to under 4% of the general population. Sadly, the study only involved just over 100 patients and is thus inconclusive.
ME is surrounded by a sad potpourri of cod-science, misunderstanding, prejudice, anger, denial and indifference. Both doctors and patients are to blame. Doctors are victims of their rigid training. If the history, examination and tests do not produce a diagnosis, the doctor's wiring starts to overheat and there can be only one conclusion. The patient must be mad. "Mad" is a diagnosis. The doctor sighs with relief. The patient cannot win.
Some people with ME are even more blinkered than the medical professionals. Patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer or heart disease sometimes get depressed and are helped by psychiatric treatment. You cannot suggest this to a militant ME sufferer.
"Myalgic encephalomyelitis" literally means "painful muscles" and "inflammation of the lining of brain tissue". Two scientific concepts irrationally conjoined to provide fertile ground for quacks and malingerers.
Doctors continue to be sceptical, their scepticism buttressed by the many who march under the ME banner but who have nothing wrong with them other than an inability to cope with life.
Some ME patients are mentally ill, I have no doubt. Some ME patients are not mentally ill. Of that I have no doubt either. When you have filtered out the malingerers and the mentally ill – no easy task – you are left with a group of people who are suffering from a chronic illness. Many of them are not receiving the help they so desperately need.
Dr Crippen is the pseudonym for a long-serving GP.