Does ME/CFS kill? This critical question has received very little attention from researchers, but there is a way for you to help change that.
The first paper on causes of death in ME/CFS was published in 2006 by Dr. Leonard Jason, et. al. They looked at a registry from the National CFIDS Foundation, and compared the causes of death and ages of patients with general population data. They found that CFS patients who died of cancer, suicide and heart failure were significantly younger than people in the general population dying of the same causes. There are a number of limitations to the study, including selection bias of the cohort, but it was a very important signal that should have been investigated.
Despite calls from people like Dr. Lily Chu (read her CFSAC testimony on this subject from 2012), I’m not aware of any longitudinal or natural history studies collecting this sort of data. In 2012, Chang, et al. crunched numbers from the Medicare database and found an increased association with lymphoma, but again, there are serious limitations to that analysis.
Despite the dearth of good data, the IACFS/ME recently made the following statement in the 2014 revised Primer:
Even if patients get progressively worse, ME/CFS itself is not known to be fatal. (p. 26)
Dr. Chu offered a dissent at the recent IACFS/ME meeting, for a number of reasons. She said, in part:
We do not have evidence to say that ME is not fatal. As far as I know, and please correct me if I am wrong, there are no longitudinal studies involving large ME/CFS populations that address this question. . . .
On the other hand, there have been cases, although rare, where death was attributed to ME. . .
The IACFS/ME is the only international scientific organization dedicated to ME/CFS. Anything we state should be evidence-based as much as possible. Statements surrounding mortality should be qualified to acknowledge the lack of and the need for more investigation.
So how do we resolve this? Two separate efforts are trying to determine just that.
At the recent IACFS/ME conference, Dr. Dana March presented data from the Chronic Fatigue Initiative’s epidemiology study. As reported on Phoenix Rising, of 960 survey respondents, 59 were determined to have died. The three highest causes of death were cancer (37.8%), heart disease (19%), and suicide (19%). That last number is pretty extraordinary, since in 2010 suicide deaths were 1.9% of deaths from all causes in the general population. Among cancer patients, suicide accounts for approximately twice that – 4% of all deaths. Granted, this is a very small sample size and the patients are drawn from ME/CFS specialty clinics. If the CFI data is confirmed in larger studies, suicide representing 19% of all deaths would be extraordinary.
One would think this would be a big enough signal to get the attention of CDC. We desperately need data on a large sample size to truly establish if people with ME/CFS have a higher risk of death from complications, from the disease process itself, or “secondary” causes like suicide (which is a primary cause to the person’s family and friends).
Natural history and longitudinal studies are expensive, in part because they need a lot of subjects and need to examine a long period of time. We will need CDC to do this work, or NIH to fund it, or NIH to fund the data platform recommended by CFSAC so that multiple researchers can do it. But we cannot and should not wait for government to get around to recognizing the need.
Enter Abby Brown (DePaul University) and Billie Moore (NJ CFS Association). Billie’s son committed suicide at age 46 after a 20 year battle with ME/CFS. Billie’s testimony on the subject is probably the most moving CFSAC public comment I’ve ever heard.
Now Billie and Abby have collaborated to create a comprehensive and detailed survey, with the goal of collecting more data in a more systematic way. The ME and CFS Mortality Study is IRB-approved and collecting responses now. If you know someone who passed away after having ME or CFS, then please consider participating in the study. The survey is very detailed, in order to collect complete details about the severity of illness and cause(s) of death. The estimated time required to complete the survey is one hour.
If you know someone who died after having ME or CFS, please participate. Feel free to share information about the study with other people you know, too. If you have any questions, you can contact Abby Brown at DePaulMECFSReseach AT gmail.com. Maybe this data will be enough to finally get the research we need.