In 1985, a California woman contracted the mysterious and debilitating disease now known as "chronic fatigue syndrome." Her version of how she got this controversial illness is a real eye-opener.
The woman is convinced she got the disease, or a trigger for it, from a herd of cattle in Urrington, Nev., in the fall of 1985. At the time of her visit there, an outbreak of chronic fatigue syndrome was puzzling doctors in the nearby Incline Village.
Her unusual theory about the animal connection is no more odd than the history of the disease itself. Only recently have doctors and scientists admitted that chronic fatigue syndrome is not a figment of the victim's imagination. For a time, the illness was derisively called "Yuppie Flu" because the victims are generally middle class and the symptoms include depression and exhaustion. In severe cases, the victim can't even rise from a sickbed.
We recently reported on the sluggish response of the Centers for Disease Control when Congress ordered a study of chronic fatigue syndrome in 1988. At the time, the CDC was still calling the disease psychosomatic. But pressure from victims' advocacy groups has forced a turnaround, and now the CDC is beginning serious case studies.
Given that history, the California woman and her cow theory are in for an uphill struggle.
Physician Paul Cheney, a leading independent researcher into chronic fatigue, has been intrigued by the number of patients who mention some connection to animals. He estimates from an informal survey that more than 40 percent of his patients claim they have a pet with a malady.
The California woman who told us her story worked briefly on a ranch in Urrington in the fall of 1985. In November 1986, she came down with what she thought was the flu, but it wouldn't go away. Doctors called it everything from AIDS to the Epstein-Barr virus before she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
She began to put two and two together. She learned that the most notable outbreak of chronic fatigue syndrome had occurred in Incline Village when she was nearby. She knew her cattle had a herpes virus, and she learned federal researchers were looking into the link between some cattle viruses and the HTLV family of retroviruses that causes AIDS. Then, earlier this month, Cheney and two other chronic fatigue experts announced a link between chronic fatigue syndrome and the HTLV family of retroviruses. It's a long chain of connections, but the California woman is convinced she is onto something.
Walter Gunn, the lead investigator into chronic fatigue for the CDC, acknowledges that the government has been resistant. He told our reporter Paul Zimmerman that he still finds reluctance among some federal health officials to meet chronic fatigue syndrome head-on. The research "is not a glamorous field to be in," Gunn said.
Chronic fatigue syndrome isn't AIDS or cancer and it isn't fatal. But Gunn confirmed that the CDC gets up to 2,000 calls a month from people claiming to have the disease. The CDC has been surveying major cities to get an estimate of the number of sufferers. Gunn wouldn't give a number, but said, "It is a much higher number than we expected."