Sick and tired

Yuppie flu: the psychosomatic excuse of indolent, middle-class skivers, or a real disease? Chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), continues to blight millions, but what is it?

Its symptoms always hinted at a viral cause, so when, a couple of years ago, Judy Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson Institute reported a retrovirus (the family of viruses that causes Aids) as the cause, many sufferers were elated. Could antiretrovirals ameliorate ME?

Unfortunately, since then, others have struggled to find the so-called XMRV virus in ME sufferers and a spat has ensued. Mikovits has implied that others were incompetent in their testing and critics have dismissed her findings as a laboratory artefact.

Finding causes of diseases isn't easy. Poor old John Keats blamed tuberculosis on masturbation. For many years, a small group, including a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, denied the role of HIV in causing Aids. Some advised Thabo Mbeki as he failed to implement policies that could have slowed the spread of Aids in South Africa.

Many Aids-deniers abandoned their cause when evidence emerged that drugs targeted specifically at retroviruses slow the progression of Aids. So, should ME victims take antiretrovirals, in case Mikovits is right? Given that antiretrovirals are not without side effects, the answer, in the absence of compelling evidence, must be no.