Malady Stumps the Experts
By Jean Lanning
National medical researchers and local doctors are stumped by a malady that has struck the North Lake Tahoe and Truckee areas in epidemic proportions for the last year.
Doctors from the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta left Incline Village last week after launching a study into a seeming epidemic of fatigue.
The researchers based their study on 150 case uncovered by two Incline doctors alone. However, after two weeks of on-site research and testing of cases documented by doctors Paul Cheney and Daniel Peterson, Center for Disease Control (CDC) researchers left with more questions than they could answer.
CDC Dr Gary Holmes will continue testing in Atlanta for the sickness which seems to break medical rules.
According to Cheney, the mysterious illness struck in January. “A bunch of people all about the same age bracket–many of them teachers– began coming in.”
All complained of the same level of fatigue.”
For many reasons, the sickness spells confusion. While there is no known treatment for the fatigue, the doctors have not been able to diagnose it or determine how it is passed on, thought they do not believe it is easiliy transmitted.
According to Cheney, standard tests for mononucleosis discouraged that as a diagnosis for most of the patients. Though the disease appears to be similar to mono, most of the patients have been middle-aged and mono is documented as an illness primarily of the young.
The large numbers that flowed in through the spring also sparked concern. According to the doctors, mono is not easily transmitted, except through saliva, and is almost never seen in epidemic proportions.
Also, mono infections usually fade in four to eight weeks. Holmes said this illness had caused varying levels of sickness–from two months of mild fatigue to up to a year of severe fatigue. In some cases it has kept people from their work and daily routine.
Also, most of the patients showed evidence of old mono infections and mono infections does not usually strike twice, said Cheney.
Holmes said many other doctors may have seen patients complaining of fatigue in past month. However, Cheney and Peterson were the only area physicians to employ a test that became available in January. The test raised more questions.
Cheney said when the fatigue patients failed the standard mono test, he and Peterson tried a test that measures the reaction to a virus called Epstein-Barr by plotting the level of antibodies in the blood.
Holmes said Epstein-Barr virus is considered to be the common base for most mono infections. Most people have the virus by the time they reach 40, though it may not have been triggered into action.
Much to their surprise, many of those tested were shown to have antibody levels high enough to suggest mono, said Cheney. “When the first tests came back positive it started to pique our interest. All of these things were so strange that we decided to call the CDC.” he said.
After working over the phone, and ruling out the possibility of lab mistakes, CDC researchers came to Incline. The CDC is a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services which provides medical specialists to investigate unusual disease patterns or occurrences around the country.
Holmes said he was specially interested in studying the cases because if the illness proved to be mono, the study would change the commonly accepted profile of the virus. The study would also shed light on the usefulness of the new mono test.
However, after two weeks on the North Shore, Holmes has no more idea what the illness is than when he came. “A lot of these people are quite ill but there is mininmal evidence that they have mononucleosis,” he said.
Though doctors don’t know what it is, and cannot explain how it has spread, Holmes said there is no basis for the concern that has spread in the community.
He is sure the illness is not spread by casual contact, or that it comes from one source such as a restaurant or air conditioning system. In many cases, people were diagnosed as having it, but their spouses never contracted it.