Long-haul COVID-19 cases rise as stigma of chronic fatigue taunts


Muscle aches and pains with crippling fatigue

After their visit to Incline Village, however, the CDC was just as perplexed as Dr. Cheney and Dr. Peterson. Many of the people with the condition reported flu-like symptoms right around the time they first got sick, and the physicians’ leading hypothesis was that the outbreak and its lasting symptoms were caused by chronic Epstein-Barr virus infection. But neither the CDC nor anyone else could identify the infection or any other microbial cause. The two EIS officers duly wrote up a report for the CDC’s flagship publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly ReportI, titled “Chronic Fatigue Possibly Related to Epstein-Barr Virus – Nevada.

That investigators focused on the fatigue aspect made sense, says Leonard A. Jason, PhD, professor of psychology at DePaul University and director of the Center for Community Research, both in Chicago, because it was one of the few symptoms shared by all the individuals studied and it was also the most debilitating. But that focus – and the name “chronic fatigue syndrome” – led to broad public dismissal of the condition’s severity, as did an editorial note in MMWR urging physicians to look for “more definable, and possibly treatable, conditions.” Subsequent research failed to confirm a specific link to the Epstein-Barr virus, which only added to the condition’s phony reputation. Rather than being considered a potentially disabling illness, it was disregarded as a “yuppie flu” or a fancy name for malingering.

“It’s not a surprise that patients are being dismissed because there’s already this sort of grandfathered-in sense that fatigue is not real,” said Jennifer Frankovich, MD, a pediatric rheumatologist at Stanford (Calif.) University’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto. “I’m sure that’s frustrating for them to be tired and then to have the clinician not believe them or dismiss them or think they’re making it up. It would be more helpful to the families to say: ‘You know what, we don’t know, we do not have the answer, and we believe you.’ ”

A syndrome’s shame

As time passed, patient advocacy groups began pushing back against the negative way the condition was being perceived. This criticism came as organizations like the CDC worked to develop a set of diagnostic criteria that researchers and clinicians dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome could use. With such a heterogeneous group of patients and symptoms, the task was no small challenge. The discussions, which took place over nearly 2 decades, played a key role in helping scientists home in on the single factor that was central to chronic fatigue: postexertional malaise.

“This is quite unique for chronic fatigue syndrome. With other diseases, yes, you may have fatigue as one of the components of the disease, but postexertional fatigue is very specific,” said Alain Moreau, PhD, a molecular biologist at the University of Montreal.

Of course, plenty of people have pushed themselves too hard physically and paid the price the next day. But those with chronic fatigue syndrome weren’t running marathons. To them, exertion could be anything from getting the mail to reading a book. Nor could the resulting exhaustion be resolved by an afternoon on the couch or a long vacation.

“If they do these activities, they can crash for weeks, even months,” Dr. Moreau said. It was deep, persistent, and – for 40% of those with chronic fatigue syndrome – disabling. In 2015, a study group from the Institute of Medicine proposed renaming chronic fatigue to “systemic exercise intolerance disease” because of the centrality of this symptom. Although that effort mostly stalled, their report did bring the condition out of its historic place as a scientific backwater. What resulted was an uptick in research on chronic fatigue syndrome, which helped define some of the physiological issues that either contribute to or result from the condition.

Researchers had long known about the link between infection and fatigue, said Dr. Frankovich. Work included mysterious outbreaks like the one in Lake Tahoe and well-documented issues like the wave of encephalitis lethargica (a condition that leaves patients in an almost vegetative state) that followed the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic.

“As a clinician, when you see someone who comes in with a chronic infection, they’re tired. I think that’s why, in the chronic-fatigue world, people are desperately looking for the infection so we can treat it, and maybe these poor suffering people will feel better,” Dr. Frankovich added. Then the pandemic struck, giving him yet another opportunity to study postviral syndromes.

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