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November / December 1999
Newsletter

Mystery Bacteria Linked to Chronic Fatigue

Source: The Medical Tribune News Service

Slow-growing infections may cause a host of chronic illnesses, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and Gulf War syndrome, according to one team of researchers.

"We’ve found a large subset of chronic illnesses are associated with infections." said Garth L. Nicolson of the Institute for Molecular Medicine in Huntington Beach, California. Infection is caused by primitive bacteria known as mycoplasms, he added. Symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, soreness, joint pain and others overlap across many chronic illnesses, he noted. And patients with these ailments have few treatment options because of limited understanding about the cause of their distress.

In a study published in Monday’s edition of Medical Sentinel, Nicholson and his colleagues laid out the case for mycoplasms as the culprit behind chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, Gulf War Syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis. In one look at 203 chronic fatigue patients, around 70 percent showed signs of mycoplasm DNA in their bloodstream. In contrast, only 9 percent of 70 healthy individuals he compared them to carried such signs.

Another trial compared 200 Gulf War syndrome to 62 healthy individuals. People with illness were more than seven times more likely to have mycoplasm infections, said Nicolson.

Mycoplasms lack many of the features of more aggressive infectious bacteria, such as cell walls, that enable antibiotics to target invading germs. Because of their simple structure they reproduce slowly, using the machinery of invaded cells to produce their energy. Nicolson theorized that individuals with immune systems compromised by a virus, radiation or pollutant might be most at risk from the bugs.

"The breakthrough is using new genetic tools to measure the bacteria. We couldn’t do that before, " said Nicolson, who has adopted the DNA analysis used by crime investigators to detect germ genes in each patient’s bloodstream.

"We really need to know more about these organisms before we can say with certainty what illnesses they cause," said Joseph Tully, who recently retired as chief of the mycoplasma lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAD) division in Fredrick, Md. He added that physicians who treat chronic illnesses have estimated that more than a quarter of their patients benefit from long-term antibiotic treatment, which he said inhibits mycoplasms long enough for the body’s natural immune system to wipe out the invaders. "I think that treatment is fine as long as doctors tell their patients it’s experimental ," he added.

Two federal efforts now underway seek to determine whether antibiotics can cure chronic illness. One investigation conducted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center looks at the blood of Gulf War veterans for signs of mycoplasms. The other, conducted at Veterans Affairs medical centers nationwide, involves giving some Gulf War syndrome patients antibiotics and others placebos under rigorous experimental conditions designed to ferret out the true effectiveness of the therapy.

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