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P2P: The Question They Will Not Ask

July 21st, 2014 11 comments

by Mary Dimmock and Jennie Spotila

cornerstone-contentThe most important question about ME/CFS – the question that is the cornerstone for every aspect of ME/CFS science – is the question that the P2P Workshop will not ask:

How do ME and CFS differ? Do these illnesses lie along the same continuum of severity or are they entirely separate with common symptoms? What makes them different, what makes them the same? What is lacking in each case definition – do the non-overlapping elements of each case definition identify a subset of the illness or do they encompass the entirety of the population?

Boiled down to its essence, this set of questions is asking whether all the “ME/CFS” definitions represent the same disease or set of related diseases. The failure to ask this question puts the entire effort at risk.

This fundamental question was posed in the 2012 application for the Office of Disease Prevention to hold the P2P meeting (which I obtained through FOIA). It was posed in the 2013 contract between AHRQ and the Oregon Health & Science University for the systematic evidence review (which I obtained through FOIA). It was posed to the P2P Working Group at its January 2014 meeting to refine the questions for the evidence review and Workshop (according to Dr. Susan Maier at the January 2014 Institute of Medicine meeting).

And then the question disappeared.

The systematic evidence review protocol does not include it. Dr. Beth Collins-Sharp said at the June 2014 CFSAC meeting that the Evidence Practice Center is not considering the question because there is “not enough evidence” in the literature to answer the question. However, she said that the P2P Workshop could still consider the question.

But the draft agenda for the Workshop does not include it. Furthermore, every aspect of the P2P Workshop treats “ME/CFS” as a single disease:

  • The P2P description of ME/CFS refers to it as a single disorder or illness throughout the meeting webpage.
  • The P2P website characterizes the names myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome as synonymous.
  • Every section of the Workshop agenda lumps all the populations described by the multiple case definitions together, discussing prevalence, tools, subsets, outcomes, presentation, and diagnosis of this single entity.

A 20 minute presentation on “Case Definition Perspective” is the only lip service paid to this critical issue. This is completely inadequate, if for no other reason than because the presentation is isolated from discussions on the Workshop Key Questions and dependent topics like prevalence and natural history. As a result, it is unlikely to be thoroughly discussed unless one of the Panelists has a particular interest in it.

Why is this problematic? Because both the P2P Workshop and the evidence review are based on the assumption that the full set of “ME/CFS” case definitions describe the same disease. This assumption has been made without proof that it is correct and in the face of data that indicate otherwise, and therein lies the danger of failing to ask the question.

What if the case definitions do not actually describe a single disease? If there are disparate conditions like depression, deconditioning, non-specific chronic fatigue and a neuroimmune disease characterized by PEM encompassed by the full set of “ME/CFS” definitions, then lumping those together as one entity would be unscientific.

The most important part of designing scientific studies is to properly define the study subjects. One would not combine liver cancer and breast cancer patients into a single cohort to investigate cancer pathogenesis. The combination of those two groups would confound the results; such a study would be meaningful only if the two groups were separately defined and then compared to one another to identify similarities or differences. The same is true of the P2P evidence review of diagnostics and treatments: assuming that all “ME/CFS” definitions capture the same disease (or even a set of biologically related diseases) and attempting to compare studies on the combined patients will yield meaningless and confounded results if those definitions actually encompass disparate diseases.

There is a growing body of evidence that underscores the need to ask the fundamental question of whether “ME/CFS” definitions represent the same disease:

  • The P2P Workshop is focused on “extreme fatigue” as the defining characteristic of “ME/CFS,” but fatigue is a common but ill-defined symptom across many diseases. Further, not all “ME/CFS” definitions require fatigue or define it in the same way. For instance, Oxford requires subjective fatigue, and specifically excludes patients with a physiological explanation for their fatigue. But the ME-ICC does not require fatigue; instead it requires PENE, which is defined to have a physiological basis.
  • When FDA asked CFS and ME patients to describe their disease, we did not say “fatigue.” Patients told FDA that post-exertional malaise was the most significant symptom: “complete exhaustion, inability to get out of bed to eat, intense physical pain (including muscle soreness), incoherency, blacking out and memory loss, and flu-like symptoms.”
  • Multiple studies by Jason, Brenu, Johnston and others have demonstrated significant differences in disease severity, functional impairment, levels of immunological markers and patient-reported symptoms among the different case definitions.
  • Multiple studies have demonstrated that patients with PEM have impairment in energy metabolism and lowered anaerobic threshold, and have shown that patients with depression, deconditioning and a number of other chronic illnesses do not have this kind of impairment.
  • Multiple studies have demonstrated differences in exercise-induced gene expression between Fukuda/CCC patients and both healthy and disease control groups.
  • The wide variance in prevalence estimates shines a light on the case definition problem. Prevalence estimates for Oxford and Empirical populations are roughly six times higher than the most commonly accepted estimate for Fukuda. Even Fukuda prevalence estimates vary widely, from 0.07% to 2.6%, underscoring the non-specificity of the criteria. Nacul, et al., found that the prevalence using CCC was only 58% of the Fukuda prevalence. Vincent, et al., reported that 36% of Fukuda patients had PEM, representing a smaller population that would be eligible for diagnosis under CCC.
  • The work of Dr. Jason highlights the danger of definitions that include patients with primary psychiatric illnesses, especially because such patients may respond very differently to treatments like CBT and GET.

By contrast, there have not been any published studies that demonstrate that the set of “ME/CFS” definitions being examined in P2P encompass a single entity or biologically related set of entities. From Oxford to Fukuda to ME-ICC, there are significant differences in the inclusion and exclusion criteria, including differences in the exclusion of primary psychiatric illness. The magnitude of these differences makes the lack of such proof problematic.

Given that treating all “ME/CFS” definitions as a single entity is based on an unproven assumption of the clinical equivalence of these definitions, and given that there is ample proof that these definitions do not represent the same disease or patient population, it is essential that the P2P “ME/CFS” study start by asking this question:

Does the set of “ME/CFS” definitions encompass the same disease, a spectrum of diseases, or separate, discrete conditions and diseases?

The failure to tackle this cornerstone question up-front in both the agenda and the evidence review puts the scientific validity of the entire P2P Workshop at risk. If this question is not explicitly posed, then the non-ME/CFS expert P2P Panel will swallow the assumption of a single disorder without question, if for no other reason than that they do not know the literature well enough to recognize that it is an assumption and not established fact.

 

Guest Post: Longtime Patient, New Advocate

June 30th, 2014 12 comments

I am very pleased to share this guest post from Darlene Prestwich in which she shares her experiences as a new(ish) advocate. I’ve been doing this so long, sometimes I forget what it was like to jump in the deep end of the advocacy pool. Darlene describes her own experiences with grace, and I am so grateful she is sharing them here today.

findyourvoice

This week I’m home alone. My family is on an annual week-long camping trip to a neighboring state. Its incredibly painful sending them off to do things that I absolutely love to do year after year, but I don’t want ME/CFS to take those experiences away from them, too. So they stock the fridge before they leave and go adventuring without me. Last year I found it incredibly difficult to send them off. I was homebound and dealing with a particularly nasty and long-lived crash that looked as if it may be my new baseline. I had to spend much of the day in bed, being capable of self care but not much more. I was lonely, sad, and so very sick.

I could have reached out to friends, extended family, or supportive church groups, but I simply didn’t have enough energy for social interaction. That’s just one of the cruel tricks this disease plays. I decided to venture online and began to get a greater sense of the depth of the ME/CFS community there. Perhaps it was because I needed it so much right then (I’d dabbled around a bit before), but I was hooked. These people were speaking my language! Plus, I could rest mid-sentence if I needed to. Here were formerly active, capable, and successful people whose bodies and brains were so whacked out that simple physical or cognitive tasks could be overwhelming, and even lead to relapse. Many had been able to find a sense of acceptance despite the desolation of this disease and the toll it takes. Some were desperate and didn’t know if they could go on another day; they felt misunderstood, mistreated, and so very broken. It was both heartrending and encouraging and most of all, familiar.

At times going online was simply overwhelming. The combination of new terminology and technology I wasn’t very familiar with was daunting to say the least. It’s incredibly taxing to learn new things when your brain is a foggy mess. But the online advocacy community was so intriguing. Here was a group of people who were trying to rise up, be heard, and effect change. Most were doing it primarily from their beds. A few months into my forays online, HHS contracted with IOM to create a new case definition for ME/CFS. Suddenly I was signing petitions, writing letters, and urging family and friends to do the same. And all at once I went from being pleased that there was a group of people online who were speaking my language, to wondering just what language these people were speaking.

Things seemed to be in code. I’ve never been much for acronyms, and now I was swimming in them. Even Google was stumped at times. Adding to the confusion was how often simply rearranging the same letters meant something completely different: i.e. IOM,OMI, & IMO (or its perhaps more gracious variation, IMHO). Many a browsing session turned into an IAMGOTOBED experience. (Internet Acronym Mess Got Overwhelming, Tired Out Brain Ends Day)

Without advocates who were willing to educate me I would have been completely lost. There are many patient, inclusive, and kind people in this community. It takes work to bring someone up to speed, and it’s a steep learning curve for an absolute beginner. I am very appreciative of those who were—and continue to be—willing to use precious energy to answer my sometimes incredibly basic questions. The more I learn about the history of ME/CFS, the more my admiration grows for those who have been advocating tirelessly for years. (Well, maybe not tirelessly, but in spite of being profoundly tired.) There are also many who have worn themselves out trying to be heard.

These were people with strong opinions who felt passionate about their cause, but who didn’t always agree. The IOM contract was hugely divisive, and it was disconcerting to see how viciously some advocates attacked other advocates. It seemed so counterproductive, especially within a movement which faces the unique challenges this one does. It has been said that advocacy is a messy business and those who want to contribute should put on their “big girl pants” and grow a thicker skin. I’m sure that can be helpful advice, but it seems doubly challenging for people who are often so ill they rarely even put on pants. On the other hand, I’ve watched advocates who were sharply divided quickly leap to other’s defense when attacks came from without the community. I got the sense that this community feels sort of like a family.

I was enjoying this business of being an advocate. I was getting a better grasp of the technology, and with repeated use the terminology wasn’t so intimidating either. Then I ran across an opinion that gave me pause. Someone had posted that there were too many people claiming the title of advocate. They suggested that signing petitions and writing letters Does Not an Advocate Make. Well, I’m not a lobbyist or a lawyer, and I haven’t started a patient organization. I don’t run a support group or make films. I don’t even have a blog. So… maybe I’m just some sort of a wannabe advocate. I suppose the answer lies in how one defines ‘advocate’. I do know that I am advocating. And at times it comes at a substantial personal cost; it doesn’t take much to do that, unfortunately. But it feels good to be doing something; and for now I suppose that will have to be enough.

Through all this I’ve become more open about my illness with my friends and extended family. I’ve appealed to government representatives and become more willing to attempt to educate my various healthcare providers. After all, it takes courage simply to admit I have an illness as lame as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sounds. And although Myalgic Encephalomyelitis now trips easily off my tongue, even my closest family has yet to master that mouthful consistently. I also feel a much greater responsibility to fight for others who are suffering, as well as those who will be stricken down by this devastating disease.

So this week will be quiet, and a bit lonely. But I’m pleased that I have new friends and acquaintances that I didn’t have last year. Many are, without a doubt, Completely Legitimate Advocates. I still have so much to learn, and not nearly enough capacity to do everything I would like. But I’ve come to believe that my voice is important. After all, imo we need every voice we can get.

Parsing CFSAC

June 24th, 2014 17 comments

tangledthreadsI feel like a broken record, saying that the June 16-17th CFS Advisory Committee meeting was frustrating. This meeting struck me as a tangle of threads that can only be understood by teasing them apart. There were signals buried in the discussion that should raise concern in the advocacy community. Rather than summarize the content of the entire meeting, I would like to parse some of the issues with you.
 

Toothless Recommendations

 
Watching group wordsmithing is always incredibly painful. I know many patients got frustrated during the Committee’s discussions of their recommendations. Despite the fact that Dr. Dane Cook’s group presented a comprehensive summary of the Researcher Recruitment Working Group rationale and well-drafted recommendations, the conversation still went off the rails a few times. Rather than recap the whole thing, I’ll just focus on the recommendations themselves.

The first recommendation was for NIH to fund and support a data platform for biobank and clinical data. The idea is based on the NDAR platform, and Dan Hall gave a great presentation on NDAR but not until after the CFSAC had already passed the recommendation. As a result of this backwards agenda, the CFSAC failed to discuss or include a very important element: funding.

Dan Hall estimated that cloning NDAR for ME/CFS would cost about $1 million, and then somewhat less to maintain annually thereafter. The CFSAC recommendation does not include the price tag for the data platform, and no one discussed the feasibility of requesting this kind of funding. Remember that $1 million is 20% of NIH’s annual spending on ME/CFS research. How likely is it that NIH will spend this kind of money on a data platform for us? I strongly support the recommendation, as a data platform like this is desperately needed and none of the non-profits have the resources to make it a reality. But even with the background support document drafted by Dr. Cook’s Working Group, it seems optimistic to believe that NIH will approve this in the short term.

The second recommendation for an RFA was very controversial, and discussed on both days. The original proposal was that the Trans-NIH ME/CFS Working Group, led by Dr. Mariela Shirley, would recommend the content of an RFA based on the P2P Workshop and the 2011 State of the Knowledge meeting. CFSAC member were appropriately concerned about voting for an RFA based on a document that won’t be written for many months. There was extensive argument, but a motion to remove the reference to P2P failed. Chris Williams (Solve ME/CFS Initiative) pointed out that the recommendation would be “toothless” without a dollar figure, but that was ignored.

There was also great controversy over whether to include a deadline for the RFA. A minority of the CFSAC members felt that including a date would kill the entire recommendation. One suggested deadline was December 31, 2015, but Dr. Alisa Koch (new CFSAC member) pointed out that this would mean grants would not even be reviewed until 2016, let alone funded. Eventually, the CFSAC amended the recommendation to state a deadline of “November 1, 2014, or as soon as feasible.” I agree wholeheartedly with the CFSAC members who pointed out that the “as soon as feasible” would be used by NIH to delay the RFA until whenever it sees fit.

Finally, the CFSAC voted to establish two new working groups. The first, suggested by Dr. Jose Montoya (new CFSAC member) will develop a case for Centers of Excellence. This is a long standing and much repeated recommendation of CFSAC, and developing the case for it will be fantastic.

The second working group, suggested by Dr. Gary Kaplan, will examine ways to interface with Patients Like Me and push that out to the community. I was really surprised by this. While the presentation by Patients Like Me was impressive, Ben Heywood admitted that PLM has not invested any effort in building out the ME/CFS community there. There are multiple problems with the way ME/CFS is defined and measured on PLM. And not a single person raised the issue that PLM is a for-profit company. They aggregate and sell their data. I don’t see how the federal government (directly or through CFSAC) can undertake a project that will specifically benefit a single for-profit company.

The worrying signal here is the Committee’s failure to make its recommendations based on a full assessment of all the facts and a view of the overall landscape. Dr. Cook’s Working Group presented the best prepared recommendations we’ve seen in quite some time, but the failure to include target numbers and meaningful deadlines continues to be a problem.
 

Compromising to Get Along

 
The most disturbing thing about the meeting was the conflicting approaches of the CFSAC members. This was most on display during discussion of P2P and the RFA recommendation.

Dr. Cook explained that the reason the RFA recommendation included a reference to P2P was because the group believed NIH would wait for the P2P regardless of what CFSAC said. Therefore, the recommendation should just accept P2P as a done deal in order to avoid antagonizing NIH. Dr. Cook and Dr. Casillas, backed up by Dr. Nancy Lee, said the recommendation would fail otherwise. NIH has apparently sent a letter to IACFS/ME responding to their RFA request, and Drs. Friedberg, Cook and Lee all said that the letter states NIH will wait for the P2P before issuing an RFA (I haven’t seen this letter).

This conciliatory view was expressed most frequently by Dr. Gary Kaplan and Dr. Fred Friedberg (IACFS/ME). I copied down multiple statements from both. Dr. Kaplan said that CFSAC should be “more aligned” with NIH, making a “polite suggestion.” He said CFSAC should “be collegial so they’ll want to work with us.” He also said we have “nothing to fear” from P2P.

Dr. Friedberg was more emphatic. He said that the recommendation should not exclude something just because we might not like it, and that he doesn’t like us vs. them thinking. He said that the recommendation should “eliminate implicit antagonism,” and, “I don’t like the demand quality.” Regarding the prospect that CFSAC (or advocates) may not like some or all of the IOM and/or P2P recommendations, he said we should “make lemonade” rather than engage in  “wholesale condemnation.”

The opposing view was expressed by Steve Krafchick, who said Dr. Kaplan’s collegial approach was “naive.” Dr. Mary Ann Fletcher specifically responded to Dr. Kaplan’s comment as well, saying that the CFSAC charter doesn’t say anything about getting along with NIH. She said that the Committee’s job was to advise the Secretary as experts in the field, and they they were not being fair to patients by putting things off to be collegial.

There was an inherent contradiction in the research recommendations, too. The recommendation on the data platform was passed with no discussion of cost or likelihood of success. There is a need for a data platform, so the Committee recommended it – and that is as it should be. But for the RFA, the majority felt that P2P should be accepted as part of the process simply because that is how NIH appears to be doing business, regardless of the fact that everyone agreed that RFA funding was needed now.

The worrying signal here was identified by Mary Dimmock (from the audience). She pointed out that it was a dangerous precedent to put forward recommendations that seemed likely to succeed, as opposed to the best recommendations that are most needed. I could not agree more. CFSAC’s job is to give the Secretary the best advice, not the advice that the Secretary or the agencies want to hear.
 

Moving forward . . . . together?

 
The last session of the meeting was facilitated by Deputy Assistant Secretary Anand Parekh. I was fascinated by the move to bring him in to lead this discussion. Was this a tacit recognition that Dr. Nancy Lee has had difficulty facilitating discussion about IOM, like the awkward session at the December 2013 CFSAC meeting? The other new development was an actual open forum. In the past, “open” discussion with the audience has been limited to the Chairman selecting questions that have been written on index cards. In this case, members of the audience were handed a microphone and they could address the Committee directly. I wish this had been more widely publicized (a simple email on the CFSAC listserv would have sufficed). I am probably not the only person who would have risked the health consequences to attend for that opportunity. Several prominent advocates had left the meeting by then, as well.

Margaret Jacobs from the American Epilepsy Association presented on the epilepsy community’s experiences with their own IOM report and subsequent cooperation with HHS. Because a number of epilepsy organizations helped fund that IOM study, they had input into the statement of work, received monthly status calls, and received the recommendations a week before public release so they could prepare their messaging. The cooperation before and during the IOM process laid a strong foundation for continued cooperation afterwards, with the epilepsy community and HHS working together.

The same is true for our situation: what happened before the IOM study is setting the stage for what will come after. HHS pursued the IOM study in secret without involving the stakeholders outside the federal government. The ME/CFS advocacy community found out about the contract by accident, and when we protested, HHS simply changed the contract mechanism to one that did not require public notice. There was no collaboration, no engagement, and communications were terrible.

Now HHS seems to think we can all come to the table and work together. I am deeply troubled by the fact that the government holds all the cards here. They will have about a week to prepare messaging on the IOM report, while we will have no opportunity to do so. The P2P report is issued pretty quickly after the meeting, but NIH will be in control of the press conference push behind the report. This simply isn’t creating a dynamic where the stakeholders can actually collaborate. I’m not sure if it will be possible, and the content of the IOM/P2P reports is only one factor in the way.

The worrying signal here is the open question of whether HHS actually wants to change the paradigm and is willing to do the work necessary. Dr. Lee said they “don’t want to do this without [community] involvement,” but if she means the kind of involvement we have had to date, then there is nothing to really talk about. It is going to take a great deal of work on both sides to change the trajectory here.

Dr. Parekh said twice that “there is a lot of angst among patient groups about IOM.” It’s not angst. We have legitimate scientific and policy concerns. Angst is easily dismissed as unreasonable anxiety. I do not know if HHS understands and appreciates the difference.

 

P2P Agenda Fatigue

May 22nd, 2014 20 comments

everyday+tiredness+may+progress+to+serious+health+problems_16000193_800453098_0_0_7077591_300HHS officials have made confusing statements about the goals of the P2P Workshop, but I have obtained documents through FOIA that give us insight into the structure of the meeting. Two versions of the Workshop draft agenda strongly suggest that the meeting will be focused on the broad category of unexplained fatigue, and the most effective treatments for that symptom.
 

The Agenda Documents

 
I obtained these two agenda documents from NIH through a FOIA request. The first is titled “DRAFT Agenda” (previously obtained by another advocate, as well) and the second is titled “Agenda Example.” Neither document is dated, but circumstantial evidence suggests that both were drafted after the January 2014 Working Group meeting.

The Draft includes a list of possible speakers, including several advocates to address the “Patient Perspective.” My name is on that list, but I have not been contacted by anyone at NIH at any time about serving in that capacity. I don’t even know who put my name forward. Whether an invitation will be extended to me remains to be seen.

The Key Questions as presented in the Draft and Example documents are likely out of date, now that the systematic review protocol has been published. The Questions from the evidence review will structure the meeting, but the agendas are important indicators of NIH’s perspective and overall approach to the meeting.
 

Framing With Fatigue

 
Both of the documents include the same description of the overview that will begin the meeting:

Dr. Maier will detail the topic and why it is of public health importance:

Overwhelming fatigue or malaise as a public health problem
Controversies that exist
Treating ME/CFS with drug and non-drug therapies

Just to be sure you didn’t miss it, here’s is the framing for this meeting on ME/CFS: Overwhelming fatigue or malaise as a public health problem. Not ME/CFS as a public health problem. Not post-exertional malaise as a public health problem. Not cognitive dysfunction and disability as a public health problem. To NIH, “overwhelming fatigue” is the public health problem.

This is so wrong. It ignores what we’ve been saying about our experiences for years. It ignores the science on PEM and cognitive dysfunction. It ignores the fundamental question of what disease or diseases are being included in the CFS bucket. In fact, it steps back in time to the Oxford definition: overwhelming fatigue alone.

The real public health problem is that since 1988, CFS has been a wastebasket and dumping ground for people with unexplained chronic fatigue. Some of those people have depression, anxiety, MS, and other illnesses. Some of those people have medically unexplained fatigue. Some of those people have a disease characterized by PEM and cognitive dysfunction.

To lump all of that together as a public health problem of “overwhelming fatigue” completely and utterly misses the point. It perpetuates the hand waving and blurred lines in the government’s approach to my disease, and there’s just no excuse for it at this point.
 

Treatment Barges In

 
At the May 2013 CFSAC meeting, Dr. Maier said that treatment research was part of the evidence review, but she portrayed it as relating back to the case definition question:

The goal of the evidence-based methodology workshop is to understand and identify how the evidence shows up for case definitions, for outcomes, for interventions, and for treatments. If it turns out that some interventions have more impact or a more positive outcome for post-exertional malaise, then we’re going to know that post- exertional malaise in a case definition is probably going to be a good thing to do. Dr. Maier, May 23, 2013 CFSAC Minutes, p. 11. (emphasis added)

But now we know that the evidence review will ask about treatment harms and benefits, and the characteristics of subgroups, responders and non-responders. The agenda documents reveal what this treatment focus will look like.

The Draft Agenda focuses on tools to measure outcomes, rather than comparative effectiveness of treatments. The Agenda Example document is very different. Here are the treatment presentations from that document (each topic allocated 20 minutes):

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Graded Exercise Programs
Symptom-based Medication Management
Harms
Patient-Centered Outcomes
Quality of Life

So we have an evidence review that lumps all the case definitions together, including Oxford. And we have an agenda that gives more time to CBT and GET than it does to symptom-based medication. And there is nothing here on disease-modifying treatment, like rituximab, Ampligen, or antivirals.

The topic selection and allocation of time among these treatment topics sends a subtle but powerful message to the Panel of non-ME/CFS experts, especially in light of the failure to distinguish among the case definitions at the outset. Previous evidence reviews, including AHRQ’s review from 2001 and the Brurberg, et al review published in February found no significant differences among case definitions or treatment outcomes, but those reviews were not set up to critically examine those differences. And as I’ve already pointed out, this current review assumes that differences among definitions represent subtypes and not separate diseases.
 

Design Flaws

 
The agenda documents show that the P2P Workshop is fundamentally flawed. The meeting is framed with the public health problem of “overwhelming fatigue.” The evidence review will include studies on adults with fatigue, and exclude those with unspecified underlying diagnoses. All the case definitions are lumped together for the purposes of assessing the reliability of those definitions and the effectiveness of treatments.

The evidence review and meeting agenda should begin with the proper scientific question: are ME and CFS the same disease, separate diseases, or points along a spectrum of fatiguing illnesses? That was the original starting question in the AHRQ evidence review contract, by the way. But it’s gone. The decision was made (not sure by whom) to assume the answer: that it is all one disease, separated only by subgroups. That assumption is the fatal flaw in this entire enterprise.

Remember that the P2P outcome will be decided by a panel of non-ME/CFS experts. We don’t know how they will be screened for bias. We won’t know who they are until shortly before the meeting. We will have no input into their selection.

This is not good science. This is sloppy, not precise. To revisit Dr. Maier’s jury analogy: this process will ask the allegedly impartial jury (selected by only one side) to reach conclusions based on evidence that has been marred by bias and assumptions. Maybe they will reach the right conclusions, or maybe the deck is stacked against us.

We have to find ways to speak out about this. I’m working on something right now, and there will be ways for you to express your own concerns.  I hope you will join me.

 

Will the Real P2P Please Stand Up?

May 19th, 2014 22 comments

standingoutWhat is the purpose of the ME/CFS P2P meeting at NIH? You would think that we would know by now, since Assistant Secretary Dr. Howard Koh first announced the effort in October 2012. But to say the rhetoric has evolved over time would be a kind description.

HHS keeps changing the answers to questions about the purpose of the workshop, what kind of research is on the table, and whether the ME/CFS experts have meaningful input.

To me, it looks more like a bait and switch where the meeting sounded better the further back in time you look, and key information (like the panel being 100% non-experts) was withheld until the very last minute. The reality of this meeting is very different from the picture they portrayed early on.
 

Are we making a research case definition or not?

 
First they told us the workshop would create a new case definition:
 

The NIH has made a commitment to conduct an evidence‐based review of the status of ME/CFS research and also convene a dedicated workshop to address the research case definition for ME/CFS. Dr. Howard Koh, October 3, 2012 CFSAC Minutes, p. 5.

To address the highest priority identified, which was “case definition issues,” the Working Group submitted a competitive application for an Evidence-based Methodology Workshop (EbMW) on ME/CFS coordinated by the NIH Office of Disease Prevention. May 1, 2013, Response from Dr. Howard Koh to CFS Advisory Committee, p. 3

 
Then they told us it wouldn’t:
 

The purpose of the Pathways to Prevention Program and the ME/CFS workshop is not —and I repeat, not—to create a new case definition for research for ME/CFS. Dr. Susan Maier, December 11, 2013 CFSAC Minutes, p. 16.

 
But in the middle, they said the meeting might help with a research case definition:
 

This will not create a research case definition in the end, but will inform anyone who wants to do research in this area about what aspects of the case definition are really strong, which are really lacking, and how those holes might be filled. Dr. Beth Collins-Sharp, May 23, 2013 CFSAC Minutes, P. 16.

 

But the meeting is about research, right?

 
The answer might depend on the day, and the person you ask. Here are the research-oriented answers:
 

The purpose of an evidence-based methodology workshop is to identify methodological and scientific weaknesses in a scientific area and move the field forward through the unbiased and evidence-based assessment of a very complex clinical issue. Dr. Susan Maier, May 23, 2013 CFSAC Minutes, p. 6.

The takeaways from a systematic review are answers to the key questions that identify where there’s strong evidence, where there are gaps, and some ideas about how those gaps may be filled. Those are called research recommendations. Dr. Beth Collins-Sharp, May 23, 2013 CFSAC Minutes, p. 13.

It has the potential to be both [research and clinical], but understanding that we are a research organization and our focus is to improve the, um, the integrity of the science that is used for translation into clinical care means that we have to focus on besting the science that is used for the evidence. Dr. Susan Maier, Institute of Medicine Public Meeting, January 27, 2014, Minute 0:19.

 
Bob Miller, who served on the P2P Working Group, certainly thinks the meeting is about research:
 

NIH is hosting a Pathway to Prevention workshop to identify gaps in scientific research, to guide a path forward for NIH research. Bob Miller, March 11, 2014 CFSAC Transcript, p. 114.

 
But at other points, it appears the focus is back on the case definition:
 

The purpose of the Pathways to Prevention Program for ME/CFS is to evaluate the research evidence surrounding the outcome from the use of multiple case definitions for ME/CFS and address the validity, reliability, and ability of the current case definitions to identify those individuals with or without the illness or to identify subgroups of individuals with the illness who might be reliably differentiated with the different specific case definitions. Dr. Susan Maier, December 11, 2013 CFSAC Minutes, p. 16.

 
Doesn’t this assessment of multiple case definitions and what research tells us about subgroups sound like what the IOM panel is doing right now? And if IOM is already doing this, why do we need a separate process at NIH where the decision makers are ALL non-ME/CFS experts?
 

The expert gets to decide, right?

 
I went back through CFSAC minutes and other documents, looking for the first time Dr. Maier or another federal employee told an ME/CFS audience that the P2P Panel would be composed entirely of non-ME/CFS experts. It was January 27, 2014 in her presentation to the Institute of Medicine, when Dr. Maier offered her ill-fated “jury model” analogy. Dr. Susan Maier, Institute of Medicine Public Meeting, January 27, 2014, Minute 6:25.

Just to be clear, the earliest public discussion of P2P was October 2012, but it wasn’t until almost 16 months later that Dr. Maier finally told us that the P2P Panel would have no ME/CFS experts on it. Why did it take so long? Maybe the better question is why January 2014. Would Dr. Maier have talked about her jury model of “They don’t know, they don’t know anything” if I had not already exposed this here on January 6, 2014? Maybe, but it strikes me as more than odd that despite at least two opportunities to tell CFSAC about the “jury model,” she waited until the IOM meeting to actually disclose it.

But the government says Don’t Worry! Your experts are participating!
 

The working group will meet to develop the questions that will form the basis of the evidence-based review, develop workshop themes and structures, suggest speakers, and develop an agenda for the meeting. The deliverable from this meeting will be a list of questions for the evidence review, themes for the workshop, perhaps a draft agenda, and any speaker names for those who will speak at the meeting. Dr. Susan Maier, December 11, 2013 CFSAC Minutes, p. 16-17.

Our experts and I had real input into the agenda and questions. The Working Group drove the agenda, and we will participate in the Workshop. I believe the prep work for the Workshop is being done with strong representation from our illness, laying the foundation for a good outcome. Bob Miller, January 12, 2014.

 
It sure sounds like that Working Group finalized the questions for the evidence review:
 

The Key Questions were defined by the Working Group of content experts at a planning meeting organized by the NIH Office of Disease Prevention. May 2, 2014 Email from CFSAC listserv.

 
There’s a problem, everybody. Multiple sources who are in a position to know what happened at the January 2014 Working Group meeting told me that the questions in the study protocol were not the questions defined at the meeting. Did something happen between that January meeting and the release of the study protocol? I don’t know whether someone continued to tinker with the questions, or why the Working Group was not consulted. But either the questions have been significantly changed, or the information from my sources is deeply flawed.

Why is this a problem? Well, in addition to all the problems I documented with the study protocol, those questions form the structure of the P2P Workshop. Those questions give us a pretty good idea of what will be on the Workshop agenda, and I will supplement that with additional exclusive information in my next blog post.

 

Protocol for Disaster?

May 2nd, 2014 43 comments

disasterThe study protocol for the systematic review of ME/CFS was posted by the Agency for Healthcare and Research Quality yesterday. It’s a recipe for disaster on its own, and within the broader context of the NIH P2P Workshop it’s even worse. Let me show you some of the reasons why.

Remind Me What This Is

The systematic evidence review is the cornerstone of the P2P process. The P2P meeting on ME/CFS will feature a panel of non-ME/CFS experts who will produce a set of recommendations on diagnosis, treatment, and research.

Because the P2P Panel members are not ME/CFS experts, they need background information to do their job. This systematic evidence review done by the Oregon Health & Science University under contract to AHRQ will be that background information. The systematic evidence report will be presented to the Panel in advance of the public P2P meeting, and will be used to establish the structure of the meeting as well.

The systematic review is the foundation. If done correctly, it would be a strong basis for a meaningful workshop. If done poorly, then everything that follows – the workshop and the resulting recommendations – will crumble. Based on the protocol published yesterday, I think “crumble” is putting it mildly.

The Key Questions

You can’t get the right answer if you don’t ask the right questions. (Dr. Beth Collins-Sharp, CFSAC Minutes, May 23, 2013, p. 12)

As I wrote in January, the original draft questions for the evidence review included whether CFS and ME were separate diseases. That question is GONE, my friends. Now the review is only looking at two things:

  • What methods are available to clinicians to diagnose ME/CFS and how do the use of these methods vary by patient subgroups?
  • What are the benefits and harms of therapeutic interventions for patients with ME/CFS and how do they vary by patient subgroups?

These questions are based upon a single and critical assumption: ME and CFS are the same disease. Differences among patient groups represent subtypes, not separate diseases. The first and most important question is whether the ME and CFS case definitions all describe one disease. But they’re not asking that question; they have already decided the answer is yes.

The study protocol and other communications from HHS (including today’s CFSAC listserv message) state that the P2P Working Group refined these study questions. The implication is that since ME/CFS experts and one patient served on the Working Group, we should be satisfied that these questions were appropriately refined. But what I’m piecing together from various sources indicates that the Working Group did not sign off on these questions as stated in the protocol.

Regardless of who drafted these questions, they cannot lead to the right answers because they are not the right questions. And when you examine the protocol of how the evidence review will be conducted, these questions get even worse.

Protocol Problems

The real danger signals come from the description of how this evidence review will be done. The issue is what research will be included and assessed in the review. For example, when asking about diagnostic methods, what definitions will be considered?

This evidence review will include studies using “Fukada [sic], Canadian, International, and others“, and the Oxford definition is listed in the table of definitions on page 2 of the protocol. That’s right, the Oxford definition. Oxford requires only one thing for a CFS diagnosis: six months of fatigue. So studies done on people with long-lasting fatigue are potentially eligible for inclusion in this review.

The description of the population to be covered in the review makes that abundantly clear. For the key question on diagnostic methods, the study population will be: “Symptomatic adults (aged 18 years or older) with fatigue.” There’s not even a time limit there. Three months fatigue? Four? Six? Presence of other symptoms? Nope, fatigue is enough.

There is a specific exclusion: “Patients with other underlying diagnosis,” but which conditions are exclusionary is not specified. So will they exclude studies of patients with depression? Because the Oxford definition does not exclude people with depression and anxiety. We’ve seen this language about excluding people with other underlying diagnosis before – and it results in lumping everyone with medically “unexplained” fatigue into one group. This protocol is set up to result in exactly that. It erases the lines between people with idiopathic chronic fatigue and people with ME, and it puts us all in the same bucket for analysis.

And what about the key question on treatment? What studies will be included there? All of them. CBT, GET, complementary/alternative medicine, and symptom-based medication management. It’s not even restricted to placebo trials; trials with no treatment, usual care, and head-to-head trials are all included.

Let’s do the math. Anyone with unexplained fatigue, diagnosed using Oxford or any other definition, and any form of treatment. This adds up to the PACE trial, and studies like that.

But it’s even worse. The review will look at studies published since January 1988 because that was the year “the first set of clinical criteria defining CFS were published.” (page 6) Again, let’s do the math: everything published on ME prior to 1988 will be excluded.

Finally, notice the stated focus of the review: “This report focuses on the clinical outcomes surrounding the attributes of fatigue, especially post-exertional malaise and persistent fatigue, and its impact on overall function and quality of life because these are unifying features of ME/CFS that impact patients.” (page 2) In other words, PEM = fatigue. And fatigue is a unifying concept in ME/CFS. Did anyone involved in drafting this protocol actually listen to anything we said at last year’s FDA meeting?

Bad Science

Credit: ElodieUnderGlass

Maybe you’re thinking it’s better for this review to cast a broad net. Capture as much science as possible and then examine it to answer the key questions. But that’s not going to help us in this case.

This review will include Oxford studies. It will take studies that only require patients to have fatigue and consider them as equivalent to studies that require PEM (or even just fatigue plus other symptoms). In other words, the review will include studies like PACE, and compare them to studies like the rituximab and antiviral trials, as if both patient cohorts were the same.

That assumption – that patients with fatigue are the same as patients with PEM and cognitive dysfunction – is where this whole thing falls apart. That assumption contaminates the entire evidence base of the study.

In fact, this review protocol makes an assumption about how the Institute of Medicine study will answer the same question. It is possible (though not assured) that IOM will design diagnostic criteria for the disease characterized by PEM and cognitive dysfunction. But this evidence review is based on an entirely different patient population that includes people with just fatigue. The conclusions of this evidence review may or may not apply to the population defined by the IOM. It’s ridiculous!

But it’s the end use that really scares me. Remember that this systematic evidence review report will be provided to that P2P Panel of non-ME/CFS experts. The Panel will not be familiar with the ME/CFS literature before they get this review. And the review will conflate all these definitions and patient populations together as if they are equivalent. I think it’s obvious what conclusion the P2P Panel is likely to draw from this report.

I would love to be wrong about this. I would love for someone to show me how this protocol will result in GOOD science, and how it will give the P2P Panel the right background and foundation for the recommendations they will draft. Please, scientists and policy makers who read this blog – can you show me how this protocol will produce good science? Because I am just not seeing it.

What Do We Do?

This protocol is bad news but it is by no means the last word. Plans are already in motion for how the advocacy community can respond. I will keep you posted as those plans are finalized.

Make no mistake, this evidence review and P2P process are worse than the IOM study. We must respond. We must insist on good science. We must insist that our disease be appropriately defined and studied.

 

Don’t Silence Yourself

April 8th, 2014 62 comments

On May 5th, the IOM panel creating new diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS will hold its second public meeting. The only way you can provide input is by submitting written comments, unless you are an invited speaker. I’m here to plead with you to send your comments to the panel.

black-tape-mouth-shut-no-speaking-700x45_660There’s been another round of the “should we speak or stay silent” debate about this meeting, catalyzed by Eileen Holderman’s public refusal of an invitation to speak. Ultimately, everyone has to do what they believe is right. But as I have said before, I believe the risk of staying silent is simply too great.

Some advocates are in favor of boycotting the IOM meeting and refusing to answer the questions they have posed to the patient community. Their argument is that patient input makes absolutely no difference, and will only be used to legitimize the process of creating a definition to destroy us. They believe in opting out of the process and continuing to seek cancellation of the contract.

That is a huge gamble.

Right now, there are at least eight members of the IOM panel who are trying to create the right case definition. These eight people know the devastation of this disease, and they are working hard to ensure that the case definition serves our interests. They need our help to do it.

HHS blatantly refused to seek our input into the decision to give this contract to IOM. Now IOM is offering us an opportunity to provide input into their decisions. How can we complain about being left out of one decision, and then refuse to provide input into the actual case definition decision? What conclusion will IOM draw from the silence of our community? Will they be impressed with our stance on the moral high ground? Or will they conclude that we must not care that much after all?

Have you seen the agenda for the May 5th meeting? One name stands out: Dr. Megan Arroll, Director of Research for The Optimum Health Clinic in London. The Clinic uses a number of alternative medicine treatments, including techniques derived from the Lightning Process and Mickel Therapy. Their approach is based on the chronic stress model of the disease. So part of the choice we have to make is whether we will cede the floor to this perspective. Should we allow that perspective to go unchallenged and unanswered? Should we leave it to the ME/CFS experts on the panel to make that argument for us?

You have valuable things to say to IOM. I know you do. You have your own experiences with seeking diagnosis and healthcare. I know you have strong opinions about the name. By opting out, you silence yourself. You deny IOM the benefit of your experiences. The IOM panel NEEDS to know what you have been through, and NEEDS to know what you think about the disease name. Chances are, you have something unique to say, something that the rest of us – while we will try to speak for you – might miss. Are you willing to take that risk?

Even if we say everything you would say, there is no substitute for volume. If ten of us say we want the name ME, that’s nice. But if 100 of us, or 1,000 of us say it, it is much harder to ignore. Part of our power comes from numbers. Why should we sacrifice that power? Don’t you think the IOM panel will notice if the meeting room is filled or half empty? Don’t you think someone will count the number of messages they get for this meeting? And if there is anyone on that committee looking for weak spots on our side, don’t you think they will point to lack of participation and use it against us?

If this is war, should we simply abandon one of the battlefields and turn our backs on the fight?

Not me. Time and again, ME/CFS advocates draw parallels to the HIV/AIDS movement. But remember one of the main slogans of that movement: Silence = Death. I will not be silent. I will not be shamed for speaking out to IOM. I say press on all fronts. I say cover all our bases. I say SPEAK NOW! Don’t let this opportunity pass by.

The IOM panel asks “what are the most important issues that healthcare providers should be educated about when it comes to diagnosis of ME/CFS?” So tell them. Tell the panel how long it took you to be diagnosed. Tell them what other diagnoses were considered and why, especially if you were told it was all in your head. Did your doctor tell you to exercise? Did your doctor understand anything about PEM? Has a healthcare provider ever talked to you about cognitive dysfunction? Were you given the information you needed to protect your health and cope with the disease? Do you think your gender, race, or socioeconomic status had any effect on your experience of getting diagnosed? Have you even found a healthcare provider who knows anything about the disease? Have you been harmed by the kind of information put out by organizations like CDC or the American Academy of Family Practitioners?

The IOM panel asks “What are your thoughts on the current terminology used to describe this disease: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? If you could suggest new terminology, what would you suggest and why?” So tell them. Tell them you hate the name CFS, and why.  Do you like ME/CFS? Prefer ME? Want them to come up with something new? Why? Tell them what you think, or allow them to make these choices in the face of your silence.

If you can, submit your comments before April 23rd to mecfsopensession@nas.edu. But you can submit input any time to mecfs@nas.edu, so don’t give up if you can’t send something in by the 23rd.

You are not limited to these questions, of course. If you want to tell them why you oppose the contract altogether, you are free to do so. If you want to talk about the danger of GET, go ahead. Tell them that you believe there are biomarkers, or that they should adopt the Canadian Consensus Criteria in its entirety, or that this is an autoimmune disorder, or that we need a specialty home. You should tell them whatever you want. I can’t guarantee they will listen. But I CAN guarantee that if you do not speak, they won’t hear you.

 

Changing Tactics

March 24th, 2014 33 comments

bigstock-Bear-Trap-38159869-e1370296224125For decades, ME/CFS research and clinical care has been plagued by disagreement over the basic classification of the illness. Is ME/CFS a physical disease, as many patients and researchers insist? Or is it a mental health disorder perpetuated by deconditioning, as argued by the psychosocial school? There is growing rejection of the psychogenic explanation for ME/CFS, but it is not disappearing. In my view, the psychosocial school is simply changing tactics, and this is a trap that we must avoid at all costs.

Transforming the Argument

The hypothesis that ME/CFS is a mental health issue has been disproved by the data. For years, the psychosocial school has claimed that CFS patients had poor coping skills and were simply deconditioned. All we needed to do was increase our physical activity (GET) and ferret out our dysfunctional illness beliefs (CBT), and we would recover. While the PACE trial and other research has been based on this premise, we have ample data that cuts the theory off at the knees. The two-day CPET (cardiopulmonary exercise testing) results cannot be faked, and distinguish ME/CFS patients from sedentary controls. Gene expression studies have also shown a distinct pattern of response to exercise in ME/CFS patients compared with sedentary controls and patients with other illnesses. Evidence, including imaging, spinal fluid, and immunological testing, has mounted to the point where Dr. Anthony Komaroff declared that the debate over back in 2006.

But the psychosocial school has not relented and I now see a change in their tactics. Instead of insisting that the illness is psychological, they are waving their hands and saying that the psychological v. physical debate is irrelevant. I offer two recent examples:

First, there is the systematic review of ME/CFS case definitions by Brurberg, et al., which I reviewed in detail in my post Systematic Overreaching. The authors stated:

It is likely that all CFS/ME case definitions capture conditions with different or multifactorial pathogenesis and varying prognosis. The futile dichotomy of ‘organic’ versus ‘psychic’ disorder should be abandoned. Most medical disorders have a complex aetiology. Psychological treatments are often helpful also for clear-cut somatic disorders. Unfortunately, patient groups and researchers with vested interests in the belief that ME is a distinct somatic disease seem unwilling to leave the position that ME is an organic disease only. This position has damaged the research and practice for patients suffering from CFS/ME.

As I said in my comment on the article published on BMJ Open, “The authors presented no evidence to support their accusation that the organic disease -only position has damaged research and clinical practice. Furthermore, they completely ignored the very real and logical possibility that the reverse is true. In other words, it is equally possible that the people with vested interests in the belief that ME/CFS has psychosocial causes are unwilling to leave that position, and have damaged the research and practice for patients suffering from the disease.”

Second, the recent report on the case definition for Gulf War Illness included the following discussion of the mental v. physical debate:

Like CMI and many other symptom-based illnesses, ME/CFS is not without controversy, particularly regarding whether they are mental disorders or physical health disorders [cite to IACFS/ME Primer]. The committee notes that this either-or approach is not useful, for several reasons. The distinction between mental and physical disorders is often arbitrary, and most patients’ experiences of any illness are influenced by biologic, psychologic, and social factors. Either-or thinking leads too often to a presumption that medically unexplained symptoms must be psychogenic. In addition, psychiatric [sic] symptoms may not be fully evaluated if a patient’s symptoms are psychogenic. Although physical and psychologic stress can exacerbate many chronic conditions – including chronic pain, headache, respiratory, and gastrointestinal symptoms – there is an inherent risk in assuming that medically unexplained symptoms assume a “stress-induced” etiology.

As in Brurberg, et al., there is no rejection of the psychogenic theory of ME/CFS. Instead, we’re told to abandon the debate. It’s not either-or, it’s both. Let’s stop arguing about the evidence, and go with a holistic view (that still includes the psychogenic theory).

It’s A Trap

Do you see what’s happening here? The ME/CFS psychogenic school is wrong – as shown by all the data that indicates biological abnormalities that are not seen in sedentary controls or people with depression or anxiety. But instead of admitting the error, they are simply changing tactics. Now they are saying that it’s psychological AND physical, and the distinction does not matter anyway.

Contrary to this new angle on psychosocial explanations, I believe it matters a great deal whether ME/CFS (or GWI) is a mental or physical disorder. The distinction between mental and physical is not “arbitrary,” but can be drawn based on signs and symptoms. I readily admit that my emotional state and coping skills have had an impact on my experience of this disease, but I completely reject the premise that therefore the distinction between mental and physical does not matter. It does.

People with mental health issues are primarily treated by psychologists, and in ME/CFS that usually means CBT and GET. We know that GET can have serious and long-lasting negative effects on ME/CFS patients. For decades, ME/CFS patients have endured dismissal and worse because of the psychogenic view of the disease. To say the distinction does not matter is foolish, at best. The practice of medicine is structured around that duology. There are medical diseases treated by physicians, and there are psychological diseases diagnosed with the DSM-IV (soon to be DSM-V) by psychologists. In the middle are psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia which are known to be biological, but are treated in the mental health setting because the symptoms of disease are behavioral. Mental health diagnoses are treated differently by health and disability insurance. There is a difference between the physical and psychological attributions of illness: in health care, in benefits, and in social views.

If the mental-physical duology no longer applies, shouldn’t that be true of all diseases? If “patients’ experiences of any illness are influenced by biologic, psychologic, and social factors,” then I suppose we are abandoning the dichotomy in cancer, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis too? I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t hear anyone suggesting that those diseases are psychogenic in any way. I have family members who have endured MS, cancer and heart disease. Stress can make those diseases harder to manage, and even exacerbate the underlying disease process. But no one would ever say “let’s abandon the either-or thinking and agree it’s biologic and psychologic.” No way. Those diseases are accepted as physical in origin, with implications for behavior and coping. I believe that I deserve the same respect.

Bias and Decision Making

I’ve described the psychosocial school as changing their tactics, but I don’t necessarily believe there is a smoke-filled room where a cabal of psychologists sat down and said, “We’re losing the argument so let’s use these talking points instead.” I think the shift may be the result of cognitive bias and the difficulty humans have with admitting they’re wrong.

If I am a psychologist and I’ve invested 10 or 15 years in the theory that CFS is the result of poor coping skills and deconditioning, it’s going to be hard to change my mind. Despite mounting evidence that my theory is wrong, it will be hard to let it go. An easier step is to say that I’m not completely right but also not completely wrong. It’s not either/or, it’s both.

ME/CFS patients have gone through this process themselves. When the XMRV paper was published in 2009, many patients seized on the results. We had very good reasons to do so, and at first, the science and scientists seemed to support that position. But as contrary data emerged, and hard questions were asked, some scientists and patients found it very difficult to follow that data. They continued to insist that it was XMRV, and when that was disproved they claimed it was HGRVs. And when that was disproved, they claimed the science hadn’t been done right or there was a conspiracy or there were unidentified retroviruses at work. And it was three years before Dr. Mikovits finally took the courageous step of publicly admitting her conclusions had been wrong.

Nobody likes to admit a mistake, and the more you have invested in that mistake the harder it is to admit it. The psychogenic explanation of ME/CFS is wrong, but instead of admitting the mistake, some scientists are shifting gears and saying that it’s not completely wrong because the physical-psychological divide doesn’t actually matter. They are not following the data, and they are attempting to twist the dialogue so they don’t have to admit they are wrong.

Drawing the Line

The divide matters, and I will not be drawn into a compromise view. ME/CFS is a physical disease with physical causes. My emotions are relevant to my ability to cope with this physical disease, just as emotions are relevant to coping with cancer or AIDS. But I reject any hypothesis that leaves the psychogenic view on the table. Not because I don’t want to face up to having a mental illness. Not because I want my disease to be physical. Not because I am personally prejudiced against mental illness and not because I don’t see the relevance of emotions in physical health. I reject the psychogenic hypothesis because the data is not there.

I had a happy childhood. I had a satisfying career and personal life. I enjoyed being physically active. Then I got sick. And despite my strong desire to continue in that career, that personal life, and that physical activity, I have not been able to do so for almost twenty years.

The reasons why my life was destroyed matter. The cause of that destruction matters. To say that the distinction between physical and psychological causes is arbitrary and irrelevant is to dismiss my experiences. It may save face for the psychogenic school, but it is a slap in mine. I challenge the researchers and decision makers to admit their errors, and get on with the business of finding the answers that will repair my body and my life.

This post was translated into Dutch, with my permission.

 

Silver Platter of Frustration

March 12th, 2014 14 comments

Yesterday’s CFS Advisory Committee meeting was insane. Wait, maybe the meeting just drove me insane. Or was the whole thing just insanely inane? I don’t even know anymore. Wait a second, hang on.

keep-calm-and-bang-your-head-against-the-wall

Ok, let me start again.

Yesterday’s CFS Advisory Committee meeting served up a generous helping of frustration on a silver platter. While some of the mistakes from the last meeting were corrected, many mistakes were repeated and new ones were made. I’m going to be as succinct as possible in summarizing another episode of Tech, Wreck and Waste.

Webinar 101

Let me make this very straightforward and very simple: Do not run a webinar if you cannot make a webinar run. Here’s a checklist:

Can you provide clear audio? Some speakers were unintelligible. Dr. Sue Levine’s audio kept cutting out during her presentation. And for seven minutes (I timed it), the audio cut out completely. The closed captioning was not an adequate substitute, but did provide comic relief with such gems as translating “criteria” as “cry tears.”

Do you know how to use the slides? I really expected this to be nailed down after the fiasco that was the slide portion of the December meeting. But I was wrong. There were nine minutes (I timed it) at the beginning of Dr. Dane Cook’s presentation during which we listened to dead air followed by a discussion of whether members could advance the slides themselves, which buttons to push, which slides they were seeing, and so on. From this point on, the slides periodically caromed out of control, moving backwards and forwards to the point where I got dizzy and had to look away from the screen. Several times, the slides disappeared completely.

Have you secured your dog in another room? I love dogs. I own a big lug of a dog, and I know that you cannot always control what your dogs do or when they will decide to bark their fool heads off. Which is why, if you are speaking on a webinar, you should arrange for your dog to be in another room. It was hard enough to follow the sometimes chaotic discussion without distractions like background noise.

Have you anticipated technical difficulties and rehearsed ways to fix them if they arise? Slide problems. Sound problems. Conferencing people in and out problems. This went a little better than December, but still, it really isn’t rocket science to practice solutions in advance.

If you answered “No” to one or more of these questions, you are not ready to run a webinar.

The tech problems have real consequences for the public trying to follow the meeting. We don’t know who is speaking (or even who is present), the slides do not always advance with the discussion, and sound problems mean we can’t hear some discussion at all. It was very clear that CFSAC members are equally frustrated by these difficulties. In my opinion, the webinar format should be abandoned until these technical issues are solved.

Stupid Questions

I believe there is really only one kind of stupid question: the question you do not ask. And there were some doozies.

  1. Not a single question for FDA about the Draft Guidance to Industry document. If I could read it and come up with a list of questions, why didn’t CFSAC members?
  2. Not a single question for AHRQ about the systematic evidence review. The evidence review is not only the cornerstone of the P2P Meeting, it is arguably just as significant (and long-term in its implications) as the IOM study. I have a looong list of questions about it. But maybe that’s just me.
  3. Little discussion about Dr. Cook’s presentation from the research and clinician-scientist recruitment working group. It seems like a lot of work went into that, and there were many potential topics for discussion. But from my notes, it looks like 15 to 20 minutes of discussion occurred.
  4. Not a single question for CDC, despite an issue that demanded strong questioning. (see the next section)
  5. Not a single question about the CFSAC charter renewal process.
  6. Not a single question about the appointment of a new Chairman.
  7. Not a single question about the timeline for appointing new members.
  8. Not a single question about what HHS is doing to ensure the coordination of the multisite study, P2P process, and IOM study – or even why these are all being pursued simultaneously to begin with.
  9. Not a single questions about the status of the High Priority Recommendations, and whether any have been completed.
  10. Not a single question about the status of adding links to ME/CFS organizations on the Office of Women’s Health website.

I Call Shenanigans

keep-calm-and-call-shenanigansDr. Sue Levine and the medical education working group were justifiably critical of CDC’s CFS website. Dr. Levine even suggested that someone investigate the potential for legal action against CDC to force some movement on the changes CFSAC has repeatedly recommended. At a minimum, she advocated that CFSAC identify who is responsible for the website in order to identify and deal with the roadblocks.

Dr. Belay (who had not responded during any of the roll calls so I’m not sure when he joined the meeting) jumped in to say that CDC has extensively revised the website based on committee input. The TookKit has also been revised, although he admitted that CDC had not taken down the old version as recommended by CFSAC. Dr. Levine asked what was causing the delay in making changes, and Dr. Belay responded that “we’ve made the changes a few months to a year ago.”

This is not true, as any CFSAC member could have established very quickly.

Denise Lopez-Majano checked the CDC website, as each page identifies when the content was last reviewed. The homepage? May 2012. General information page? May 2012. CDC CFS Publications? April 2012. Continuing education? July 2012. Case definition? May 2012. Symptoms and Causes and Diagnosis and Management? May 2012. The ToolKit? September 2011.

So was Dr. Belay simply mistaken, and the 2012 updates reflect the revisions made with CFSAC’s input? Or are the changes still trapped in CDC internal review? I have no idea. Someone should have asked.

Wordsmithing

I asked my husband last night if it was reasonable for senior-level people to present rough draft recommendations for a full committee to wordsmith together. He said he would be fired on the spot if he did that in his field. But wordsmithing by committee is precisely what happened for roughly two hours of the CFSAC meeting.

wordsmith1It wasn’t clear from Dr. Levine’s presentation whether she drafted the recommendations on her own, or if the working group had collaborated on drafting them. Whatever the working group’s process, it was abundantly clear that the draft was not ready for prime time, thus leading to the two hours of refinement.

Lack of clarity was pervasive throughout the recommendation language. What disease are we trying to educate doctors about? How should we define integrative medicine? Do we mean physicians or medical professionals? And on and on and on. The committee spent two hours hammering out all this stuff that could have been done partially in advance. FACA requires that the recommendations be discussed and approved in public. It does not require that they be written by the full committee in real time during a public meeting. There is no reason why the working group could not have spent two hours working out the details and supporting evidence, and then present a more polished version to the full committee. Non-working group members would still have a chance to ask questions, offer changes, etc.

I’m not saying the refinement was poorly done. The final version approved by the committee was significantly improved by the group effort. It was essential to replace verbs like “suggest” and “support” with verbs like “recommend” and “fund.” It was also essential to identify what supporting documentation and evidence should be submitted to the Secretary with the recommendations. My point is that these things could and should have been done before presentation to the committee. Not only was it frustrating and inefficient, but the time spent on this process meant that there was NO time for discussion of future issues for working groups and recommendations. A very large item of business was left unfinished.

So what did the committee actually recommend? Basically, the committee recommended that HHS fund the development of curriculum at medical schools, fund teaching modules featuring complex cases, support integrative medicine programs featuring learning about ME/CFS, fund novel programs to bring expert care to under-served areas, gather requisite data for established organizations to incorporate ME/CFS in education, and support the CFSAC effort to amend the CDC website. All of these recommendations were explicitly worded to focus on ME/CFS as defined by the 2003 Canadian Consensus Criteria.

What was missing was a statement of the case. Yes, multiple supporting documents were identified, including the 2003 Canadian Consensus Criteria, the Primer, and the Expert Letter to the Secretary. But the Secretary is (or should be) already familiar with those documents. HHS has already declined to follow the Expert Letter or to remove the CDC Toolkit. Why should the Secretary listen now? In order to create a compelling argument for these recommendations, the working group should have prepared a one page statement of the case. That case could present the data on medical school education and the responses the working group got when they contacted the professional associations (which boiled down to “prove to us this is a public health problem”). They should be sending the Secretary a few paragraphs that convey not only the urgent need for better provider education, but also why the current efforts are inadequate. Instead, the committee is apparently deferring that to Dr. Marshall, who will write the cover letter accompanying the recommendations. Will everyone on the committee be satisfied with what he writes? I hope so, since they delegated the task to him and did not ask to see a draft version before it goes to the Secretary.

Widening Divide

The public comments raised an issue that is increasingly troubling to me. Dr. Jon Kaiser (founder of K-PAX Pharmaceuticals) closed his remarks with strong praise for all the federal agencies and their efforts on ME/CFS. Bob Miller cited four examples of how he sees the federal government “turning a corner” on ME/CFS, although he pointed out that results will be the ultimate measure of success. The rest of the public comments took HHS and CFSAC to task for lack of progress, or worse.

There has always been a divide in the ME/CFS advocacy community between advocates who thought the government was making progress (albeit slow and inconsistent) and those who thought the government was stalled or moving backwards (perhaps intentionally). But it seems to me that this divide has grown significantly wider in the last year. I’ll be writing more about this soon, so I’ll just put a pin in the topic to save it for later.

The Silver Platter

The disconnect between the accountability and progress that ME/CFS patients deserve and the decisionmaking put on display at CFSAC meetings remains large. These meetings are so frustrating, and increasingly so, that it is easy to see why some people believe HHS is doing this on purpose. Maybe they blame individuals, maybe they blame the Department, maybe they blame a highly placed policy maker, but many ME/CFS advocates believe that the sheer volume of problems can only be explained by intentionality.

WhitegloveSilverPlatterSizedHow else can we explain a repetition of technical difficulties from the December meeting? How else can we explain the CDC’s failure to be forthcoming about their own website? How else can we explain the conduct we see in these meetings, and the way CFSAC’s recommendations are handled by the Department? How else do we explain the lack of urgency?

I have no explanations to offer. But somebody could, and should. FDA has consistently demonstrated over the last two years that it is listening to patients and advocates. FDA has held open teleconferences and given advocates the freedom to ask questions and make their points. FDA held the public meeting last year, and followed through on its commitments to produce summary reports and draft guidance to industry within a year. Advocates do not agree with all of FDA’s decisions by any stretch of the imagination (e.g. Ampligen), but we recognize that FDA is listening and moving forward.

That is what progress looks like. And the contrast with CFSAC could not be more stark or more troubling.

 

Guest Post: Wind Up Clock

February 24th, 2014 11 comments

The final post in this stretch of guest authors comes from Claudia Goodell. Claudia is among the most proactive ME/CFS patients I know, trying to make a new life for herself with this disease while also participating in advocacy.

wind-up-peopleI am one out of 1 million Americans waiting for decades in a medical “no man’s land” for solutions to a debilitating disease with no known cause, NO approved treatment and none in the pipeline. We have no designated specialists, and no cure in sight. We feel abandoned by our government who funds research on our disease at a rate less than that of male pattern baldness, we feel failed by the researchers and drug companies who can’t seem to make progress fast enough, and we feel ostracized by the medical profession who throws us around like hot potatoes hoping someone else will handle us. If we are fortunate we have a support system and receive disability, but many struggle alone with no finances and no one to help them, some of whom are completely bedbound. We are so determined to return to the healthy active lives we once knew that some of us will try whatever we can to get well.

When I was in graduate school my professor of Auditory Neuroscience and Psychoacoustics lectured us about sound pressure. In teaching us the mathematical equation for sound traveling through the acoustic system, he made sure we understood that if one looked at only the first part of the equation it would appear that an acoustic signal actually gained energy as it passed through the middle ear. However, this increase only compensates for the loss of energy that eventually occurs when the sound enters the fluid filled inner ear. The net amount is actually a slight loss in energy, and if you see the entire equation this is clear. In order to make this point he taught us, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (TANSTAAFL), meaning that even if something seems like it is free, there is always a cost, no matter how indirect or hidden.

While I didn’t retain much of my hearing science knowledge, I remembered TANSTAAFL, and ME/CFS reminds me of this every single day. It’s as though I am an old fashioned wind up clock ticking along and then running down. As I run out of energy my tick tock sound gets slower and slower.  I sit on the table for various intervals, until someone randomly walks by, sees me and decides to rewind my mechanism. I may be mid-way between fully wound and fully spent; sometimes they rewind me all the way, and other times just a few rotations. I never know how much energy I really have. I just keep tick-tock-ing at whatever level I am capable given the amount of energy at any one time.

I worry. I worry that if I stop ticking I’ll suffer a slow, progression of this awful disease that forces me to stop moving.  It’s not because I want to stop moving, or because I’d rather sit around than be active. Nothing could be farther from true. But every time I feel well enough to move, and I get out there and do the things I love, at a much reduced level than before the disease I am left feeling a relapse of symptoms for days, weeks or months. This is not motivational, but fortunately I was an athlete before becoming sick, and I am a determined person.

I do all the good things I can to stay in control of my symptoms as best I can. I avoid foods and drinks that my body doesn’t tolerate, and I take only the few medicines and supplements I really need. I insure ample good quality sleep, drink plenty of water, get regular massage, meditate, walk, do yoga, advocate, and I paint. Although this practice gets me close to maintaining some sort of balance between staying somewhat active and being too sick to move, unfortunately none of this is enough to create what could even loosely resemble a full life. I am unable to work, unable to travel without relapsing, unable to participate in sports at a level I would like, and socializing is minimized. So, to quote a famous movie, “I’m not dead yet”, but I’m not really living either. I’m occupying no man’s land with the rest of my fellow patients, and none of us wants to be here.