Book Ties Chronic Fatigue to Mild Polio

Researcher finds similar symptoms, but another questions data

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, June 21, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Could the roots of chronic fatigue syndrome be found in the polio epidemic of a half-century ago?

An expert in the treatment of polio survivors says a new survey shows it does, but a critic contends the findings are unreliable.

Richard L. Bruno, director of New Jersey's Post-Polio Institute, claims in a new book that 20 percent of older people who suffer from chronic fatigue may have been infected with a mild form of the polio virus.

According to Bruno, the findings could hold new hope for chronic fatigue patients, who could learn from the techniques used to help polio survivors deal with the aftereffects of their infections. "The symptoms can be managed, and further damage may even be prevented," he says.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is one of the most controversial diagnoses in medicine. Some experts claim it is imaginary, and possibly a symptom of mental illnesses such as depression. Others suspect viruses and sleep disorders are at fault.

Whatever the cause, people with chronic fatigue say they suffer from weakness, tiredness, muscle aches, sore throat and fever. Some complain of memory loss and confusion.

Researchers at DePaul University estimate that more than 800,000 people nationwide suffer from chronic fatigue. Half are over 40, and the majority are women.

Bruno works with people who have post-polio syndrome, an energy-sapping condition that shares many of its symptoms with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Bruno suspects the roots of chronic fatigue in many patients may lie in mild polio infections from the past. In the middle decades of the last century, thousands of American children reportedly suffered from an illness called "the summer grippe," which caused high fevers, flu symptoms and sore necks. The children recovered and never knew they had suffered from a minor form of polio, Bruno says.

Last year, Bruno contacted chronic fatigue support groups and sent surveys to sufferers asking about childhood illnesses. Nearly 600 people responded from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Bruno reports his findings in a book published this month called The Polio Paradox: Uncovering the Hidden History of Polio to Understand and Treat 'Post-Polio Syndrome' and Chronic Fatigue. The findings have not been published in any scientific journal.

Of those surveyed who were born before the polio vaccine became available in the mid-1950s, 20 percent reported suffering from an illness with a fever, typically around 1947.

Of those 20 percent, about a third reported suffering from a stiff neck (a sign of polio infection), a third were hospitalized, and two-thirds reported having muscle weakness.

Judging by those symptoms, Bruno suspects the 20 percent who reported a childhood illness may have had a mild form of polio that damaged the lower part of the brain, the location of "the nerves that keep your brain awake and focus attention."

Later in life, "brown-outs" in the brain could cause symptoms of chronic fatigue, he says.

Dr. James Grisolia, a neurologist with Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, questions the numbers in Bruno's survey. He points out that Bruno didn't compare the results to normal people who don't suffer from chronic fatigue. "There's no information on how often the rest of us had viral illnesses in childhood," he says.

Also, he adds, the study results rely solely on memory instead of more reliable sources such as medical records and direct observation.

Instead of pointing the finger solely at polio, Grisolia says "it's much more likely that a variety of infections or other illnesses can trigger chronic fatigue syndrome."

Bruno stands by his findings, and says they suggest some chronic fatigue sufferers may wish to follow the advice he gives to post-polio syndrome patients: Don't push yourself too hard physically, and rest when you feel like it.

"Both of these groups need to listen to their bodies, and do what their bodies are telling them," he says.

What To Do

To learn more, visit the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America or the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Try the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for information on post-polio syndrome.

SOURCES: Richard L. Bruno, Ph.D., director, Post-Polio Institute, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, Englewood, N.J.; James Grisolia, M.D., chairman, neurology section, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego

Last Updated: