In Depth

Coronavirus and ME: doctors fear wave of chronic fatigue syndrome

The little-understood disease CFS/ME is often triggered by viral infections

As the UK’s daily death tolls fall and the immediate threat of Covid-19 recedes, doctors are warning that the outbreak may lead to a long-term surge in cases of a debilitating and untreatable disease.

Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis or CFS/ME, is an “illness with a wide range of symptoms”, says the NHS. The most common symptom “is feeling extremely tired and generally unwell”, it adds.

The condition “is usually lifelong and often devastating”, says The Washington Post. “Up to 25% of ME/CFS patients are housebound or bedbound for years.”

While the disease is not well understood, one potential cause is a change in the “immune system and the way it responds to infection”, says the US Centres for Disease Control.

Several viruses are known to trigger it in some of the people they infect. “Clusters of ME/CFS have followed many infectious outbreaks,” says The Atlantic. “In a study of 233 Hong Kong residents who survived the Sars epidemic of 2003, about 40% had chronic-fatigue problems after three years or so.”

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Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2006 found that “a relatively uniform post-infective fatigue syndrome persists in a significant minority of patients for six months or more after clinical infection with several different viral and non-viral micro-organisms”.

Whether Covid-19 has the same long-term effect is not yet known. “ME/CFS is typically diagnosed when symptoms persist for six months or more,” says The Atlantic, “and the new coronavirus has barely been infecting humans for that long.”

However, many people who contracted the new coronavirus have suffered from extreme tiredness and aching muscles for weeks after the virus left their body. “Researchers suspect at least some Covid patients will remain sick and eventually develop post-viral ME/CFS,” The Washington Post reports.

Given the size of the pandemic - the official infection count is approaching ten million - the coronavirus outbreak could leave in its wake a “large population with post-viral problems that could be lifelong and, in some cases, disabling”, the newspaper warns.

However, says The Atlantic, a new wave of cases could produce a silver lining of sorts.

“The symptoms of ME/CFS have long been trivialised; its patients disbelieved; its researchers underfunded,” the magazine reports. “If the pandemic creates a large population of people who have symptoms that are similar to those of ME/CFS, it might trigger research into this and other overlooked diseases.”

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