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CDC reassigns controversial head of chronic fatigue research
By JIM WALLS and KATE BENSON
The Atlanta-based CDC has reassigned its chief researcher into chronic fatigue syndrome, a longtime target of scientific organizations and patient advocacy groups around the country.
Researchers in Nevada last fall reported a strong correlation between chronic fatigue syndrome and XMRV, a retrovirus related to the one that causes AIDS. The potential breakthrough has excited the 1 million or so Americans with CFS who are looking for treatment.
The CDC’s research program, led by Dr. William C. Reeves, had no role in that study, and Reeves was dismissive of its findings. Critics said that was because the agency had wasted $100 million on looking for a possible psychological explanation for CFS and dismissing outside research that looked for a viral cause.
Finally, last fall, a CFS Advisory Committee called on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius to install “progressive leadership” to direct CDC’s efforts to find a cause and cure for the disease. The panel did not identify Reeves as the obstacle, but minutes show the committee had discussed whether to name him.
The International Association for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a 500-member group of medical professionals, has repeatedly challenged CDC’s focus and its new five-year plan for CFS research. Its president, psychologist Fred Friedberg, testified in October:
“After 25 years (and over $100 million) of CDC research, chronic fatigue syndrome remains a stigmatized illness without substantive progress on public health policy or objective diagnosis and treatment. And their new five-year, $25 million plan fails to inspire any confidence that change will occur.”
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said today he had “no direct knowledge” of the reasons behind Reeves’ reassignment, other than the agency’s belief that his expertise was “a good fit” for his new role.
“As far as his salary goes, it’s a lateral move for him,” Skinner said.
Starting Feb. 14, Reeves will be senior advisor for a new mental health surveillance program that will explore how various diseases and conditions affect mental health. Virologist and cancer researcher Dr. Elizabeth R. Unger becomes director of the Chronic Viral Diseases Branch (CVDB), which includes the CFS program, on an interim basis.
“Looking for a permanent director will commence as soon as possible,” Skinner said.
The transfer comes on the heels of the CDC’s reassignment last month of Dr. Howard Frumkin, who had run the CDC division that deal with public health problems associated with formaldehyde contamination in trailers provided to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Frumkin became a special assistant to the CDC’s director of Climate Change and Public Health.
CFIDS Association applauded the leadership change in the CDC’s research into the disease:
“The CFIDS Association of America, other organizations and advocates have vocally supported new program leadership to effect a more robust research effort at CDC. This staffing change has the potential to significantly advance CFS research beyond the agency’s intramural program and to seize scientific momentum generated by recent discoveries.”
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