Just over a year ago, advocate Leela Play noticed something odd on a federal contracting website. What she found was a notice of intent to award a sole source contract to the Institute of Medicine to create clinical diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS. And just like that, the ME/CFS landscape changed.
What followed was a month-long attempt to stop the government from issuing this contract, and when that failed more attempts were made to get the contract rescinded. The advocacy and scientific communities faced divisions over positions and tactics. Meanwhile, the IOM contract has moved towards its conclusion in March 2015.
Current activity – both IOM and advocacy – is smoldering underground. But no one should mistake this period of quiet to mean that nothing is happening.
Where Is IOM?
The process and schedule for this IOM study is set forth in the contract, and is moving pretty much on track. The committee was selected in December 2013, and held two public listening sessions (January and May 2014). The committee has met behind closed doors four times, with a fifth meeting scheduled for this week. Bare bones meeting summaries are posted on the project website after the meetings.
Committee members have reviewed a great volume of material. An extensive literature search has been conducted. In addition, the public has submitted comments and materials over the course of the contract, numbering more than 4,000 pages the last time I checked. There are also indications that the committee may have examined raw data, although details about that are not yet available.
The study seems to be running slightly ahead of the schedule laid out in the contract, at least judging from the meeting dates. If so, then it means the committee is putting the finishing touches on its recommendations and the case definition. The next step is sending the draft report out for peer review, with delivery on track for early 2015.
Where Are We?
As reflected on this and other blogs, discussion forums, and social media, ME/CFS advocacy exploded when we learned about the contract. I’ve compared it to dropping a match on a lake of gasoline. For the most part, we focused our attention outward towards the government, IOM and the media. But at various times, we’ve also focused attention inward. We’ve criticized each other for our positions on the contract, the degree to which we have participated in the process, and for the tactics we’ve used. Sometimes, the criticism has not been constructive. This is not unexpected when people feel cornered and the stakes are high.
DHHS stated at the June 2014 CFS Advisory Committee meeting that it wants to work with the advocacy community on a path forward after the IOM report. As I wrote in my meeting summary, if this “means the kind of involvement we have had to date, then there is nothing to really talk about.” HHS holds all the cards here, and it will take more than token efforts on both sides to actually move forward together. Obviously, this begs the question of whether ME/CFS advocates will even want to move forward with the IOM report. It all depends on what that report says.
I think one possible analogy for where we are now is the Centralia mine fire. This fire has been burning in a coal seam beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania for 52 years. Underground coal fires can burn for years undetected. Eventually, the ground collapses in sinkholes, allowing oxygen to rush in and fuel the fire even more.
On the surface, it may not seem like advocates are paying much attention to the IOM study right now. A number of prominent voices in our community have retired (temporarily, I hope) or taken breaks to recover from the crashes brought on by advocacy. The scientific community has not been publicly discussing IOM. And the IOM committee members themselves are bound by very strict confidentiality rules, so they’re not talking either.
Don’t let the quiet fool you. Work has continued on multiple fronts this year, and I expect we will hear developments in the near future. It won’t take much disturbance on the surface to refuel this fire. A sink hole, some oxygen, and we’ll be at it again. What I’m wondering these days is who is going to get burned.