Unexpected news came today that Dr. William Reeves passed away last night. Dr. Reeves was head of the CDC’s CFS program from 1992 through 2010, and was a polarizing figure both inside and outside the agency.
Others have chronicled the complicated history of CFS at the CDC. Dr. Reeves was the whistle blower who revealed misappropriation of funds allocated for CFS research in 1996-1998. His revelations resulted in an investigation by the Inspector General and the return of $12.9 million to the program between 1999 and 2004. The investigation also led to Congressional oversight of the program during that time period.
But after that oversight ended, the CDC’s CFS program increasingly shifted its focus to more psychosocial theories of the illness. In 2005, the “empiric definition” was published, a definition that has been shown to misdiagnose people with primary depression as having CFS. By 2008, the CFIDS Association (at the time a contractor to CDC) published results (pdf) of its own inquiry into the financial irregularities of the CFS research program. In the spring of 2009, the public had an opportunity to offer comment on CDC’s draft strategic plan for the CFS program. In my comments at that meeting (pdf), I said, “If CDC fails to address the systemic problems within the CFS program, if corrective measures are not undertaken to address the wasteful spending and lack of accountability, then any five-year strategic plan will not be worth the paper it is printed on. Moreover, the opportunity costs of allowing these conditions to continue are incalculable.” This strategic plan was mothballed at the end of 2011 with no explanation and no word on whether or when a new one will be drafted.
After the Lombardi et al. paper was published in Science in October 2009, Dr. Reeves told the New York Times that he did not expect the findings to be validated. To advocates, CFSAC members and others, this was a prejudiced statement, reflecting Dr. Reeves’ apparent bias is favor of psychosocial explanations for CFS. With no explanation and little fanfare, Dr. Reeves was removed from his post as head of the CFS program in early 2010.
I met Dr. Reeves in November 2006. In preparation for the launch of CDC’s public education campaign on CFS, I was asked to participate in a series of interviews with Dr. Suzanne Vernon, then a CDC scientist (now Scientific Director of the CFIDS Association). Dr. Vernon and I received several hours of media training, and Dr. Reeves attended the session. I did not have much opportunity to speak with him, but he left me with a sharp impression of his strong personality and confidence in his views.
Dr. Reeves was a lightning rod for criticism of the CFS program at CDC. But his transfer out of the program did not change everything. Progress has been slow in coming, if it is coming at all. Dr. Reeves left a large legacy behind him, and much of it was negative. But it would be an oversimplification, and a strategic mistake, to blame all the problems of the CDC program on one man. And in the end, he was a man and not a caricature. He has often been viewed as disdainful of the suffering of people with CFS; we should not make the same mistake and be disdainful of the pain his family and friends must feel at his passing.
Update August 9, 2012 – The New York Times published an article about Dr. Reeves on August 8, 2012, and notes the cause of death is unknown.