In 1985, a California woman contracted the mysterious and debilitating disease now known as "chronic fatigue syndrome."
The woman is convinced she got the controversial disease, or a trigger for it, from cattle in Urrington, Nev., in the fall of 1985. At the time of her visit, an outbreak of chronic fatigue syndrome was puzzling doctors in the nearby Incline Village.Her unusual theory about the animal connection is no more odd than the history of the disease itself. Only recently have doctors and scientists admitted that chronic fatigue syndrome is not a figment of the victim's imagination.
For a time, the illness was derisively called "yuppie flu" because the victims are generally middle class and the symptoms include depression and exhaustion.
We recently reported on the sluggish response of the Centers for Disease Control when Congress ordered a study of chronic fatigue syndrome in 1988. At the time, the CDC was still calling the disease psychosomatic. But pressure from victims' advocacy groups has forced a turnaround, and now the CDC is beginning serious case studies.
Given that history, the California woman and her cow theory are in for an uphill struggle for credibility. But she is not the only person with chronic fatigue syndrome who believes the disease was contracted through casual contact with animals.
Dr. Paul Cheney, a leading independent researcher into chronic fatigue, has been intrigued by the number of patients who mention some connection to animals. He estimates from an informal survey that more than 40 percent of his patients say they have a pet with an irregular malady.
The California woman who told us her story worked briefly on a ranch in Urrington in fall 1985. In November 1986 she came down with what she thought was the flu, but it wouldn't go away. Doctors called it everything from AIDS to the Epstein-Barr virus before she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
She began to put two and two together. She learned that the most notable outbreak of chronic fatigue syndrome had occured in Incline Village when she was nearby. She knew her cattle had a herpes virus at the time, and she found out that federal researchers were looking into the link between some cattle viruses and the HTLV family of retroviruses that causes AIDS.
Then, earlier this month, Cheney and two other chronic fatigue experts announced a link between chronic fatigue syndrome and the HTLV family of retroviruses. It's a long chain of connections, but the California woman is convinced she is onto something.
Cheney and his colleague, Elaine DeFreitas, say that the government should be doing more to investigate the link with animals. But given the government's track record on chronic fatigue syndrome, that will probably take some time.
Dr. Walter Gunn, the lead investigator into chronic fatigue for the CDC, acknowledges the government has been resistant. He said he still finds reluctance among some federal health officials to meet chronic fatigue syndrome head-on. The research "is not a glamorous field to be in."