Myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome: An infectious disease

Med Hypotheses. 2015 Dec;85(6):765-73. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2015.10.011. Epub 2016 Oct 19.


The etiology of myalgic encephalomyelitis also known as chronic fatigue syndrome or ME/CFS has not been established. Controversies exist over whether it is an organic disease or a psychological disorder and even the existence of ME/CFS as a disease entity is sometimes denied. Suggested causal hypotheses have included psychosomatic disorders, infectious agents, immune dysfunctions, autoimmunity, metabolic disturbances, toxins and inherited genetic factors. Clinical, immunological and epidemiological evidence supports the hypothesis that: ME/CFS is an infectious disease; the causal pathogen persists in patients; the pathogen can be transmitted by casual contact; host factors determine susceptibility to the illness; and there is a population of healthy carriers, who may be able to shed the pathogen. ME/CFS is endemic globally as sporadic cases and occasional cluster outbreaks (epidemics). Cluster outbreaks imply an infectious agent. An abrupt flu-like onset resembling an infectious illness occurs in outbreak patients and many sporadic patients. Immune responses in sporadic patients resemble immune responses in other infectious diseases. Contagion is shown by finding secondary cases in outbreaks, and suggested by a higher prevalence of ME/CFS in sporadic patients' genetically unrelated close contacts (spouses/partners) than the community. Abortive cases, sub-clinical cases, and carrier state individuals were found in outbreaks. The chronic phase of ME/CFS does not appear to be particularly infective. Some healthy patient-contacts show immune responses similar to patients' immune responses, suggesting exposure to the same antigen (a pathogen). The chronicity of symptoms and of immune system changes and the occurrence of secondary cases suggest persistence of a causal pathogen. Risk factors which predispose to developing ME/CFS are: a close family member with ME/CFS; inherited genetic factors; female gender; age; rest/activity; previous exposure to stress or toxins; various infectious diseases preceding the onset of ME/CFS; and occupational exposure of health care professionals. The hypothesis implies that ME/CFS patients should not donate blood or tissue and usual precautions should be taken when handling patients' blood and tissue. No known pathogen has been shown to cause ME/CFS. Confirmation of the hypothesis requires identification of a causal pathogen. Research should focus on a search for unknown and known pathogens. Finding a causal pathogen could assist with diagnosis; help find a biomarker; enable the development of anti-microbial treatments; suggest preventive measures; explain pathophysiological findings; and reassure patients about the validity of their symptoms.

MeSH terms

  • Causality
  • Comorbidity
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / epidemiology*
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / immunology*
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / pathology
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infectious Encephalitis / epidemiology*
  • Infectious Encephalitis / immunology*
  • Models, Immunological*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Syndrome