Monday, 2 November 2015
The Scientifically Challenged UK Media Strikes Back
When I first heard The Telegraph had featured an article concerning a follow-up study of the notorious PACE trial I was inclined to ignore it1. I’ve long become used to the appalling coverage of ME by the British media2 and felt I didn’t need to read any more disinformation disseminated via the Science Media Centre. However, I cracked and had the misfortune to read an article written by Sarah Knapton that is the worst I have seen in the thirty years I have been ill with this disease, which considering the competition is an impressive achievement1.
The article clearly implies ME is a non-illness, the suggestion in the headline that a bit of positivity and exercise could cure sufferers merits no other interpretation. One wonders what spin was put on the latest study by the SMC, as the results of this research bear no similarity to its reporting in the press. Indeed, flawed as the PACE trial is, at no point do the researchers suggest GET or CBT cure ME, as claimed by Ms Knapton in her inaccurate and mendacious article1.
Most in the ME community are aware of the substantial problems with the PACE study, including the selection criteria, the self-reporting and lack of objective measures, a flawed methodology, which have been outlined in detail by various authors including Angela Kennedy, Professor Malcolm Hooper, Tom Kindlon, Jane Colby, the late Dr Elizabeth Dowsett and, most recently, David Tuller in the US. Unfortunately the UK media continues its obsession with treating ME as a non-illness affecting lazy people whose only problem is their inability to pull themselves together and push through their fatigue, which seems to be the only symptom the media acknowledge.
To start Knapton states:
‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is not actually a chronic illness and sufferers can overcome symptoms by increasing exercise and thinking positively, Oxford University has found’1.
Not a single word in that opening paragraph is accurate. The study included a large number of participants who probably did not have ME as the primary criteria for participating was fatigue. Despite this the PACE trial was only able to establish that some participants showed mild improvement while undergoing GET and CBT (though these were self-reported, subjective results). Participants remained ill and severely limited in their ability to perform normal daily activities. To repeat, any positive results revealed by the trial were barely notable yet according to Knapton,
‘The new study found that graded exercise therapy (GET), in which sufferers gradually increase activity levels, as well as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which encourages positive thinking and behaviour, had a dramatic impact’1.
A definition of dramatic: sudden and striking, impressive3
The PACE trial in no way justifies such an adjective, a more accurate description would be, ‘a negligible impact’ though this would not have supported the slant of Knapton’s piece.
Her next paragraph aggravates matters,
‘The finding is important because many CFS sufferers believe that exercise will make their condition worse.’1
Sufferers do not believe, ME is not a religion (the proponents of the psychosocial model and their media acolytes exhibit cult-like behaviour but that’s a separate issue). ME sufferers know exercise can make their condition worse through first hand experience of the damage it can cause, something supported by scientific studies illustrating physiological damage(4,5).
Two more paragraphs in the article were particularly disturbing:
‘But gradually increasing exercise and therapy to remove patients’ negative thoughts that they would never get better seemed to work. Prof Sharpe said the study was likely to prove controversial because a “minority” believe that CFS is either caused by a virus or is chronic and cannot be alleviated.’1
In what other chronic illness would sufferers be accused of contributing to their illness due to their ‘negative thoughts’? A more clear case of blaming the patient is hard to imagine and to make such a statement with zero evidence to support it, is unworthy of an academic. Suggesting that only a minority believe a virus triggers the disease and that it is chronic is not only untrue, there has never been any suggestion that ME is an acute condition, but a use of language designed to offend ME sufferers. The following paragraph continues in the same vein,
Prof Sharpe added: “It’s wrong to say people don’t want to get better, but they get locked into a pattern and their life constricts around what they can do. If you live within your limits that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”1
There is no science to substantiate anything the professor states in this sentence and I can think of no other illness in which a researcher would speak of sufferers in such a fashion, it is immoral, breaches the Hippocratic Oath and constitutes abuse of a vulnerable group of patients.
Another point to make, highlighted by John Cohen in Science6, is that the basis of the original trial’s supposed success has been undermined by this latest study. The PACE trial claim that GET and CBT were the best treatments for ME is demolished by the finding in this latest study, which revealed that all therapy options produced the same results. To quote John Cohen,
‘After analyzing the responses, the researchers concluded that the benefits reported in the original study, which assessed participants at 1 year, were maintained for at least another 1.5 years. But the participants randomized to receive the two interventions that initially did nothing also improved, and there “was little evidence of differences in outcomes” when compared with the people in the other treatment groups’5.
Sharpe et al try to explain this by claiming that participants undergoing other therapies switched to GET and CBT in the intervening period but there is no evidence to support this conclusion. I’d also like to query what condition participants are in now, as the suggestion that any improvement was maintained for ‘at least another 1.5 years’ implies their health could have declined after this period of time.
Knapton’s article provides a list of ME symptoms, which exclude post-exertional malaise (PEM) arguably the defining symptom of the illness. It also includes a link to a video featuring Martine McCutcheon talking about the lightning process, telling you all you need to know about the malicious intent behind this article.
‘These are not magic cures’ says Sharpe. Apparently Sarah Knapton disagrees.
A final comment from Professor Sharpe:
‘It’s sometimes quite hard to understand what motivates the very vocal minority that gets upset by this apparently benign bit of moderately helpful treatment’1.
Perhaps some of the headlines in the British media this morning will enlighten the good professor as to why so many in the ME community are upset by his ‘treatment’.
1) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/11959193/Chronic-Fatigue-Syndrome-sufferers-can-overcome-symptoms-of-ME-with-positive-thinking-and-exercise.html?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#link_time=1446019914 (Accessed 28/10/2015)
3) http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dramatic (Accessed 28/10/2015)
4) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23813081 (Accessed 28/10/2015)
5) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25990639 (Accessed 28/10/2015)
6) http://news.sciencemag.org/health/2015/10/criticism-mounts-long-controversial-chronic-fatigue-study (Accessed 28/10/2015)