29 July 2011
No one should have to endure threats of violence and malicious abuse for their professional commitment to the advance of medical knowledge, but while listening to the Today Programme interviews about ME/chronic fatigue syndrome and the hate campaign directed at those leading research into psychological based explanations for the illness, I had the urge to bang heads together. My annoyance began with "the scientist" interviewed in the role of victim. I was left to question whether his science might be as distorted as his reasoning expressed on Radio 4.
This story is not a new one. Psychiatrist Simon Wessely, well-known for his theories that myalgic encephalomyelitis is a type of neurosis, was telling the New Scientist in 2009 about the threats he faced. Now he tells the BBC's Tom Fielden: "People seem to prefer to be diagnosed with like a retro-virus, a potentially incurable, maybe even fatal illness, rather than an illness for which we do have some reasonable but not perfect treatment.
"That really attests to the strength of feeling here – I would rather have an incurable virus than a potentially curable disorder if the cure was treatment involving any acknowledgement of the social or psychological."
No, Dr Wessely, I suspect that that is not what ME sufferers feel – not even those who have descended to desperate extremist levels. It is the quality of the science and such distorted reasoning that enrages ME sufferers. They feel helpless and dismayed – and if you were genuinely listening to your patients, Dr Wessely, you would understand something of that.
They feel dismayed by the fact that most government funding into ME concentrates on research into the psychology and not the virology of the illness. They feel dismayed by NICE guidelines and doctors who persist with programmes of treatment that not only do not work but make them feel worse. They feel dismayed by a stigma that still surrounds the illness, stemming from early medical ignorance.
Dr Wessely accuses his hostile critics of "trying to make me into a leper". Well, that is just how many ME sufferers have been made to feel for years. They feel dismayed that research into viruses that consistently precede the onset of ME is ignored. Was it only last autumn that scientists at Dundee University had found abnormalities in the white blood cells of all children with ME/CFS in their study? Dundee's Professor Jill Belch said: "It's important because some people do suggest that ME is a disease of the mind and here we are showing that it is a disease of the body."
They obviously didn't tell Dr Wessely. Anyone whose life has been shattered by ME or CFS – they can be separated – would take any cure, anything that could offer them a return to normality. I would like to hear from the medics who suffer from ME. In my 15-year interest in the illness I have yet to find one who agrees with the Wessely theory. No matter how sceptical they may have been, they seem to be instant converts to a physical cause once they become sufferers.
I wish Dr Wessely nothing but good health and back the call for hostilities against him to be halted. But there are far more victims in this story – the tens of thousands of people in the UK whose lives have been almost shut down by ME.
I will write more on my experience as a parent of an ME sufferer in Public Servant magazine.