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Exhausted by Illness, and Doubts

Chronic fatigue syndrome causes a host of debilitating symptoms: profound exhaustion, disordered sleep, muscle and joint pain and severe cognitive problems, among others. But what causes the syndrome itself?

Since the first cases in the United States were identified in the 1980s, scientists have been divided over that question. Some have suspected that one or more viral infections are likely to play a central role.

But many other researchers — not to mention relatives, friends, employers, doctors and insurers of the million or more Americans estimated to suffer from the illness — have dismissed it as stress-related, psychosomatic or simply imaginary.

Now recent back-to-back announcements have highlighted both the volatility of the issue and the ambiguity of the science, and have alternately heartened and dismayed patients.

On Dec. 14, an advisory panel suggested that the Food and Drug Administration ban blood donations by people with a history of C.F.S., as the illness is often called. The goal was to prevent the possible spread of viruses that two high-profile studies had linked to the condition.

But then, on Dec. 20, the journal Retrovirology published four papers suggesting that key findings in those studies could have resulted from laboratory contamination.

The F.D.A. is not required to accept the opinion of its advisory panel. Yet patients still hailed the recommendation as a sign that their illness was being taken seriously.

“When an F.D.A. panel suggests that patients with C.F.S. not donate blood, that’s going to impact the way doctors think about it,” said Mary Schweitzer, a former history professor at Villanova, who has frequently written about living with the illness. Dr. Schweitzer said she has been unable to work for 16 years because of the syndrome, which was diagnosed after she suffered from a series of flulike illnesses.

The studies that concerned the F.D.A. had reported that people with the syndrome, which is also called myalgic encephalomyelitis or myalgic encephalopathy in Europe, showed higher rates of infection with the virus XMRV or others from the same category, known as MLV-related viruses. (These viruses are all relatives of mouse leukemia viruses, some of which can infect species other than mice; their role in human disease, if any, remains poorly understood.)
 
 

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