The illness became famous after an outbreak in 1984 around Lake Tahoe, in Nevada. Several hundred patients developed flu-like symptoms like fever, sore throat and headaches that led to neurological problems, including severe memory loss and inability to understand conversation. Most of them were infected with several viruses at once, including cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr and human herpesvirus 6. Their doctors were stumped. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s presumed bulwark against emerging infectious diseases, dismissed the epidemic and said the Tahoe doctors “had worked themselves into a frenzy.” The sufferers, a C.D.C. investigator told me at the time, were “not normal Americans.”
When, by 1987, the supposed hysteria failed to evaporate and indeed continued erupting in other parts the country, the health agency orchestrated a jocular referendum by mail among a handful of academics to come up with a name for it. The group settled on “chronic fatigue syndrome” — the use of “syndrome” rather than “disease” suggested a psychiatric rather than physical origin and would thus discourage public panic and prevent insurers from having to make “chronic disbursements,” as one of the academics joked.
An 11th-hour plea by a nascent patient organization to call the disease by the scientific name used in Britain, myalgic encephalomyelitis, was rejected by the C.D.C. as “overly complicated and too confusing for many nonmedical persons.”
Had the agency done nothing in response to this epidemic, patients would now be better off. The name functioned as a kind of social punishment. Patients were branded malingerers by families, friends, journalists and insurance companies, and were denied medical care. (It’s no coincidence that suicide is among the three leading causes of death among sufferers.) Soon the malady came to be widely considered a personality disorder or something that sufferers brought upon themselves. A recent study financed by the C.D.C. suggested that childhood trauma or sexual abuse, combined with a genetic inability to handle stress, is a key risk factor for chronic fatigue syndrome.