Posted by Julie Rehmeyer on January 18th, 2012:
When I wrote that first story about the PACE study, I’d been focusing primarily on XMRV, not CFS more generally. I didn’t understand the problem with case definitions [a set of criteria for what symptoms should be required for a person to be diagnosed with CFS], and there was a context of controversy that wasn’t part of my awareness at the time. I wrote that story in a couple hours on deadline. It wasn’t until afterward that I realized that this wasn’t the piece I would have written had I known more about it.
I will say, though, that my story was better than most of the others on it, which for the most part didn’t have any caveats.
What dissatisfied you about the story?
I was driving home when it appeared, and by the time I got home I had half a dozen emails about the piece. I realized that I hadn’t focused on the issue of the case definition. I’ve been a public health student and I teach reporting about public health [at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and School of Public Health’s new concurrent Master of Public Health/Master of Journalism program]. In the first semester, all public health students have to take epidemiology, and one of the things they learn is that if you’re doing research, you have to have a good case definition so that you know which patients have the illness and which don’t. The PACE study’s definition of CFS is six months of unexplained fatigue — period. It’s not rocket science to figure out that that’s likely to include people who are depressed and don’t have CFS. Fatigue is a common symptom of depression, but people with CFS have some symptoms that are not typical of depression.
What made you want to write an even more in-depth piece, explaining the history of CFS research and relating that to the recent XMRV mess?
Writing the case definition story led me to start looking into the Centers for Disease Control’s role in defining the disease. I found that in 2005, the CDC created a new way of defining the illness. Using that framework, the agency calculated that the prevalence of CFS was four times what everyone else thought it was, and ten times their own previous estimate. But if four to ten times as many people now have it, obviously something is really wrong with your case definition, before or after. William Reeves was head of the CDC’s research program for CFS for two decades, and two years ago, they moved Reeves aside. They never publicly said why, as far as I could tell. Furthermore, in the 1990s, the CDC spent funds allocated for CFS research on other projects, then lied to Congress about it.
I think all of this is really important for understanding why patients can be so suspicious and paranoid. In most of the coverage, the XMRV situation was decontextualized from the experience of patients and history of the illness, although Amy Dockser Marcus did some terrific reporting in the Wall Street Journal about the back story. But no one had really focused in depth on the case definition problem and the CDC’s role in perpetuating that problem.
I didn’t want to write a rant. I wanted to write, “This is what happened with the epidemiology, and this is why the situation is so screwed up.” I wanted something that patients felt represented some of the frustration they’d experienced in the past 20 years.
Did you think of the story as an advocacy piece?
No. I’m not a patient. I didn’t want to write it as an advocate for people with CFS. I wrote it because there was an undertold story. I understood that it was something that would likely be useful to the patient community; to the extent that that’s the case, that’s great. My goal is to tell a story that’s interesting, and one that I think is important. Obviously I do think that the CDC has not done what people expected it to do in this case. I think of writing this piece as being a proper watchdog of a government agency in an area that hasn’t gotten much attention.
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