A (Second) Letter to Dr Phil Hammond

Dear Dr Hammond – I was very pleased to hear about your vision for the way ahead regarding CFS on your 25 October BBC Radio Bristol show with Jennifer Brea (available on listen again at 2-21)

You said: “I remember when HIV first hit in the 80s in the UK … it was the patients themselves who learnt all the research and became very assertive and demanded the best care… I see that same movement happening with chronic fatigue. We need to unite people across the globe and use their wisdom and experience to get better research and that’s the route to an optimistic future, I think.”
I very much agree that this is the way ahead. We patients are doing our best to move things along this path. Unfortunately “becoming assertive” in the way that has been so successful for HIV campaigners is being interpreted by some health professionals as ‘harassment’. I’m glad you do not share this view. We are not trying to be difficult for the sake of it. All we are trying to do is to help uncover the truth about this illness which devastates so many patients’ lives.
With this in mind, I wonder if you have the time to answer a few questions which arose from your interview with Jennifer Brea. You were kind enough to respond when I wrote to you about a year ago and any response you can make again now would be very much appreciated.
1) You mentioned to Jennifer that some of your young patients improve when they have graded exercise therapy at your clinic. When you responded to me last year, however, you said that ‘the mainstay of treatment ( at the clinic) is activity management’. Which of these do you actually use at the clinic? Or is it both?
2) You were also telling Jennifer that when you do graded exercise therapy, you cut back on the amount your patients are doing. I wonder if your approach is the same as that described in the Magenta protocol, where patients start on a baseline level which is the same as the median amount which is currently being achieved each week. The total level therefore remains the same but there is more consistency in the amount of exercise day to day. Once this baseline level has been achieved every day for 1 to 2 weeks, then according to Magenta, participants are advised to increase exercise by 10 to 20% a week. This means that any cutback in exercise is not substantial (really more a smoothing out than an actual reduction) and does not seem to last very long. Is this indeed what you do in the clinic? In which case, the overall emphasis seems really to be more about increasing the level of exercise rather than cutting back. Or do you do things another way? If so, why do you not use the same regime as Magenta?
3) Jennifer remarked that the regime in your clinic as you described it to her seemed very like pacing, but the Magenta advice to increase by 10 to 20% a week seems much less flexible than that. Even if the increase is not rigidly imposed, the therapist – and inevitably the patient – will feel under pressure to deliver it. The most crucial issue is: what happens if symptoms start getting worse? Are patients encouraged to cut back on exercise or to carry on regardless? The Magenta protocol doesn’t seem to say what the advice will be but the PACE protocol is clearly in favour of carrying on as far as possible in spite of worsening symptoms. Is this the advice given in your clinic I wonder? If so, then it certainly isn’t like pacing. And if otherwise, what is the advice given?
I’m sorry if these questions seem fussy and pedantic but it seems to me that a lot of the problem in understanding CFS is that so many factors are not precisely defined. From a short conversation, it can seem like a graded exercise program is very similar to pacing but the devil is in the detail. Similarly, so many researchers have made the mistake of assuming that patients diagnosed with different diagnostic criteria all have the same condition.
As you said in the interview: “we’ve noticed there are some kids who do improve when they have graded exercise therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy – and some who don’t, which suggests… either we’re dealing with different conditions or chronic fatigue syndrome is a variety of different things.” As Jennifer put it (with your agreement): “we have to make sure we are treating the right patients with the right treatments.” This is true not least because the wrong treatment can lead to long term disability.
So I couldn’t agree more that we need to distinguish between the different types of patients, but we’re not going to do this as long as we keep on using a dogs breakfast of different criteria to identify patients, frequently conflating ME/CFS with generic chronic fatigue and even making up new variations as we go along. I’m afraid that a prime example of the latter appeared in the original protocol for FITNET-NHS, which – for no very good reason – proposed using a version of the NICE criteria which did not require the presence of post-exertional malaise. I understand that this has now been scrapped but why on earth was it thought to be a good idea in the first place? Unless we start describing patients precisely and consistently, we will never get anywhere.
You mentioned that some of your patients do not respond well to graded exercise and it would be interesting to see if such patients fit the Canadian criteria rather than Fukuda or NICE. You also showed great interest when Jennifer described the use of the VO2 Max test to try to make sense of patient response to exercise. You even suggested collaboration. Would it not be possible to make that happen? It is indeed important to distinguish between the different types of patients so why are you not using some of these (what seem to me to be) obvious strategies to help you do so?
I think it is great that you are helping so many children who respond well to your therapies but you acknowledge that many do not and I can only agree that there is a very great need to distinguish between them, not least for the sake of those who you describe as having severe symptoms for a long time. As you say ‘that is where most of the attention needs to go’. Once again, I can only agree. I applaud what is obviously your heartfelt desire to help such children. As a concerned and assertive patient, I urge you to do whatever you can to bring that about.

 

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Wearing a Forced Smile

Time after time over the years, people with M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis) have had to put up with hearing total bunkum about their condition, but rarely does the ‘science’ get as flaky as last Thursday’s announcements on the ‘Smile’ Trial, a study which purported to assess the efficacy of the ‘Lightning Process’ for children with M.E. This process (known as LP for short) could be described as a cross between neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and amateur dramatics, or (to put it less kindly though perhaps more accurately) as a form of brainwashing.

The precise nature of LP is wreathed in secrecy and participants are told not to disclose the details. However, according to anecdotal reports, patients undergoing the process are told that they are responsible for their illness and are free to choose to live their life without it if they wish. They are told they can achieve this through LP but it will only work if they believe in it. Everything they think and say must be positive. They must tell everyone they are better. When they feel any symptoms or negative thoughts, they must stretch out their arms with the palms facing out and shout “Stop!” If the process doesn’t work, they’re doing something wrong: it is their fault if they’re still ill.

Can you guess what results this trial has achieved?

Well, the researchers reported that LP combined with standard medical care produced better results than standard medical care alone. If you look at how they assessed this, the outcome was scarcely surprising. In common with other similar trials assessing ‘psychological’ treatments for M.E. (including the controversial £5m publically funded PACE trial) it was unblinded and there was very little in terms of objective assessment of outcomes. The results were almost entirely assessed using self-completed questionnaires. So in other words what they did was to tell the children they were better and then ask them if they were better. Just in case this didn’t achieve the desired outcome, remember that the children had also been told that the process would only work if they believed in it and if they didn’t recover it would be their fault.

Remember too that these were children being questioned by adults in positions of perceived authority.

Now what was that answer again, children?

Apparently we are supposed to treat this extraordinary procedure as a piece of serious science. After all, we have the science editors at the BBC and the Guardian as our role models. As with the many previous papers from the PACE researchers and their colleagues, these so called professional journalists swallow the whole thing without so much as a grimace and repeat it all back just as they have been told it, like performing parrots. The source on which they rely to tell them what to think is the Science Media Centre, a shadowy organisation which purportedly exists to provide a balanced view of science but in fact appears to promote the agenda of vested interests: in this case those who have built careers on the backs of patients with M.E., promoting their unproven psychological theories, misdirecting patients and their families, and effectively diverting funds from much-needed biomedical research.

On top of all the nonsense they spouted in Thursday’s coverage about the trial itself, these ‘journalists’ have also been coached to repeat yet again the habitual misinformation about M.E. researchers being abused by patients, apparently to such an extent that most of them have left the field altogether. This simply isn’t true. While one or two psychiatrists have announced their retirement, at least one purportedly in fear of his life, this doesn’t seem to stop them continuing to write about M.E. or, in at least one case, issuing further papers on the subject. These accusations against patients reached their peak at the Freedom of Information Tribunal which released important data about the PACE Trial. The Tribunal ruled that the accusations had been greatly exaggerated. Apparently the sole piece of evidence produced for all the so-called threats was that one of the researchers had been heckled at a lecture.  In reality, while any abuse which may occur is regrettable, by far the bulk of what these researchers complain about is simply legitimate criticism about abysmal so-called ‘science’ such as the Smile trial.

Meanwhile, those scientists researching the biomedical roots of M.E., of whom there are many worldwide – though precious few in the UK where psychiatrists take most of the funding – get on extremely well with patients, who in many cases raise the money they need to do their work.

Though such research remains grossly underfunded, progress is slowly being made. As Prof Jose Montoya announced at a conference just last week, it is no longer true to say that this is a mystery illness. It is one whose pathogenesis is slowly being unveiled.

Only a small proportion of such progress is reported in the UK media. The Science Media Centre don’t tell the journalists about it and, it seems, they can’t be bothered to look for themselves.

To add to the misinformation: on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme (approx 7-50 am), lead Smile researcher Esther Crawley grossly misrepresented the patient support group the M.E. Association by claiming that they didn’t want M.E to be researched in children. In fact, their complaint was not against research for children with M.E. in general, but the Smile Trial in particular, which they considered to be unethical. I have to say that I agree with them. Children frame their view of the world at least partially according to what adults tell them, so for them to be told they are not ill, contrary to their own perceived experience and to what is now understood about the physical reality of this neuroimmune condition, appears to be a betrayal of their trust. Research evidence by VanNess et al, among others, strongly suggests that it is harmful for M.E. patients to ignore the way they feel and push themselves beyond their capability. This can bring about a long-term deterioration in their condition. Unlike adults, children have a good chance of making a full recovery if they are simply allowed to take the rest they need. To encourage them to ignore the way they feel, as does the lightning process, is therefore particularly unfortunate. It can push children who might otherwise have recovered into a lifetime of chronic illness.

This is not the only potential damage to children. Others have been driven into anxiety and depression under the pressure of being made to act as if they are well when they are not. Some have even attempted suicide under the strain of this.

The Guardian article reported that Esther Rantzen’s daughter Emily had been cured of M.E. by the Lightning Process: another piece of misinformation. It was reported some years ago that Emily actually had coeliac disease, not M.E., and she described the pressure of going for several years after her so called ‘recovery’ pretending she was well when she wasn’t:

“I’ve been used to secretly feeling I have to drag myself through life, forcing my body to be active and using mind over matter to ‘fake it till I feel it’. “

How many more children will be subjected to these various forms of harm following Thursday’s inaccurate coverage? And how long will it be till UK journalists start reporting M.E. responsibly?

Looking at the Evidence

As you may know, a few days ago the Journal of Health Psychology published a very important special issue critiquing in depth the controversial, deeply flawed PACE Trial, a study which purported to provide evidence for the use of graded exercise and a very specific type of CBT in the treatment of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known – misleadingly – as chronic fatigue syndrome or CFS). Congratulations to the journal’s editor Prof David F Marks for taking the trouble to inform himself about the true situation regarding ME. He is one of very few scientists and health professionals who despite having no personal or pre-existing professional interest in the condition has made the effort to look at the facts and realise that – unlikely as it may seem to many – the PACE Trial and similar ‘research’ into ME by those with a fixed biopsychosocial mindset really is every bit as flawed, misleading and potentially damaging as patients have been claiming for years. Dr David Tuller, Prof James Coyne, and Prof Jonathan Edwards are other rare free thinkers who have not been afraid to get informed and challenge the status quo – or to put it another way, to point out that the emperor is naked because that is what he is.

By contrast, those who persist in defending PACE give the impression that they have simply taken the word of the PACE investigators rather than study the actual evidence. Prof Malcolm Macleod, who was trotted out by the Science Media Centre as an ‘expert’ in response to the special issue, seemed only aware of one of PACE’s many flaws and seemed to base his defence of the study chiefly on the ‘doubtful provenance’ of some of its critics. It is another example of people being judged on the basis of who they are, rather than what they say or where the truth lies.

As for Prof George Davey Smith, who left the JHP’s editorial board in protest at the PACE-related special issue, he seemed to positively gloat about his ignorance of ME at last year’s CMRC conference, this in spite of his involvement with the much vaunted though controversial MEGA study, and even referred to it as CSF rather than CFS, apparently mixing up chronic fatigue syndrome with cerebrospinal fluid.

Speaking on Twitter, David F Marks described his disappointment that George Davey Smith did not ‘offer a pro-PACE commentary instead of leaving in a huff’. He (Marks) has offered to debate with PACE supporters in a public forum at any time. I don’t suppose he’ll get any takers. That would put them to the trouble of actually sitting down and informing themselves of the true situation.

Marks, meanwhile, has studied the facts and has drawn his own conclusion. He says: ‘“The many wrongs committed by psychiatry and medicine to the ME/CFS community can only be righted when the Pace trial is ultimately seen for what it is: a disgraceful confidence trick to reduce patient compensation payments and benefits.’ To which I would add: ‘also an exercise to try to protect the reputations of a small number of health professionals who have built their illustrious careers on the back of an unproven ‘biopsychosocial hypothesis’.

Meanwhile the proponents of PACE continue to take the cream of the research money here in the UK, so inhibiting much-needed biomedical progress; unsuspecting patients are given potentially damaging courses of graded exercise; and the number of parents threatened with ME-related child custody proceedings appears to be spiralling upwards, all this fuelled by the unproven biopsychosocial hypothesis.

As The Times article reported with great relish, James Coyne allegedly called the departing Davey-Smith ‘a disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite’. This may seem a little harsh but if language like that helps to get the truth about PACE in the newspapers, then so be it as far as I am concerned. And in view of the human suffering which underlies the farce that is PACE, perhaps such language is restrained.

Note: David Tuller’s response to the Science Media Centre’s ‘expert comments’ on the JHP special issue is here.

Hillsborough Law – Shifting the Balance in Favour of Truth

Continue reading “Hillsborough Law – Shifting the Balance in Favour of Truth”

Spreading the Word

privateeye-hammond-dec2016-web

Dr Phil Hammond’s latest column in Private Eye is called ‘Trial on Trial’. You may remember he wrote quite a helpful column about ME just recently. This time he writes in response to criticism from a doctor who got in touch to say:

“Every illness has a physical, psychological and social component, and limiting diagnosis or treatment to only one aspect of someone’s illness is likely to lead to a much poorer outcome. This ‘triple diagnosis’ applies to any complaint you care to consider, although obviously in varying proportions. The one exception seems to be CFS/ME, where any suggestion that there might be a psychological or social component leads to criticism. That CBT is the only treatment which has repeatedly been shown to have any benefit is conveniently ignored.”

It does become tiresome having to deal with such ‘arguments’ time and time again. Once upon a time it was ‘yuppie flu’ that popped up in every article about ME. Now, at long last, that is slowly fading away. Yet now we have to deal with this endlessly repeated idea that ME patients have an unreasonable and unsubstantiated resistance to any suggestion that there might be a psychological component to our illness. People with cancer are happy enough to go for CBT, we are told. So what’s our objection? Continue reading “Spreading the Word”

More Voices

Many patients and carers left additional comments for Professor Holgate of MEGA when they signed our recent letter. I wasn’t able to carry these over when I transferred the post to its permanent home, so I’m reprinting some of them here.  Sorry I haven’t included them all but I am grateful for all your comments and signatures nevertheless. I shall link to this post when I send the follow-up letter to Prof Holgate (which I hope till be tomorrow). I will post the follow-up letter here on the blog as well.

Here are the comments: Continue reading “More Voices”

The OMEGA Petition – Email to Professor Holgate

This email has been sent to Professor Holgate of MEGA. Many thanks to all those who signed. (Whoops! missed a few… Total signatures now updated to 221)

((Please note that we are not the organisers of the OMEGA petition.))

Dear Professor Holgate – We comprise a number of M.E. patients and carers, 218 in all. Please see our signatures at the end of this email..

We are writing because we notice your suggestion in your letter to Professor Jonathan Edwards that OMEGA (the petition opposing the MEGA study) has attracted so many signatures due to the support of Invest In ME. We are writing to assure you that we patients and carers are able to look at the evidence and make up our own minds on such issues.

Here are some of the grave concerns that we have about the MEGA study as it has been proposed. It seems likely that you have heard many of them before but in view of your professed perplexity about the OMEGA petition, we want to make sure you are aware of the issues. For the same reason, we are copying this to the other members of the MEGA team and to those you copied in to your letter to Professor Edwards. We are also sending a copy to Professor Edwards himself, and the email will be posted online at the Spoonseeker blog.

Our concerns about MEGA include the following:

Patients from the NHS CFS/ME clinics (apparently the intended source for MEGA) will not yield a representative sample of people with M.E. The reasons for this include:

  • Most severely affected patients cannot access the clinics and so will not be included in the study.
  • There will be an inevitable selection bias towards the mildly affected because
    • the clinics will tend to select such patients as those most likely to respond to the behavioural therapies on offer, and
    • the more severely affected patients will be more likely to reject such therapies – and hence the clinics – as inappropriate.
  • Other more severely affected patients will no longer be on the clinic’s system
    • either because they have not responded well to the therapies, dropped out, and not been followed up (as feedback suggests is often the case) or
    • they are among the long term sick who are no longer on the system because treatment is time-restricted

There has been a suggestion, following representations from patients, Continue reading “The OMEGA Petition – Email to Professor Holgate”

Letter to Dr Phil Hammond

Following last Saturday’s interview with Prof Esther Crawley on BBC Radio Bristol, I sent the following letter to Dr Phil Hammond who hosted the programme. I think it explains a large part of the reason why patients with M.E. have problems with Dr Crawley and why we don’t want her involved with the proposed MEGA study:

Dear Dr Hammond

Thank you for putting the concerns of ME/CFS patients to Prof Esther Crawley in your interview on Radio Bristol last Saturday. Unfortunately, as I have tried to explain as briefly as possible below, her responses were largely factually incorrect. I wonder if next time you have her on your programme, you could also invite the investigative journalist David Tuller whose original in-depth analysis brought the many and in some cases outrageous defects of the PACE Trial to wider attention. This led to numerous condemnations of PACE from eminent researchers in the field of ME/CFS. Here are just two of them:

Prof. Ronald Davis of Stanford University said: “I’m shocked that the Lancet published it…The PACE study has so many flaws and there are so many questions you’d want to ask about it that I don’t understand how it got through any kind of peer review.”

 Prof. Jonathan Edwards of University College London said: “It’s a mass of un-interpretability to me…All the issues with the trial are extremely worrying, making interpretation of the clinical significance of the findings more or less impossible.”

 PACE’s recommendations for the use of CBT and graded exercise therapy (GET) for ME/CFS have frequently been reported by the British media but the important work of Mr Tuller has been ignored, so grossly distorting the information which has been made available to the British public. It would be an invaluable service if your programme could help to redress this imbalance.

When asked about the recent PACE reanalysis on your programme, Prof Crawley replied as follows: Continue reading “Letter to Dr Phil Hammond”

Big Data Danger

This post comes mainly courtesy (again) of the astute Steve Hawkins, who responded to my concerns in the Getting Airborne post about the possible dangers of a MEGA Biobank. Over to Steve:

On the ‘big data’ front, I think that all genuine physical measurements will be useful if used in the right way. The danger comes from any extraction/filtering that uses diagnosis as the reference field. If they do that – and I’m sure Crawley and Co would, because they think they can diagnose without biomarkers – the results would be garbage, as there would be many conditions given the wrong name but appearing together.

On the other hand, filtering on key concrete signs like PEM, POTS, bedbound, etc. would pull up useful groupings whatever the ostensible diagnosis.

In the wider scheme of things, there are now a number of entrepreneuring projects aiming to collect ALL big medical data, and link all medical databases together. I read a good piece on this recently by one bioinformatician who is setting up a giant server, but I don’t seem to have bookmarked it. Here is a conference on getting all genomic information into ‘the cloud’ for free searching and filtering: And one from The Lancet, on the astronomical amount of data that is about to flow from mobile phones whose apps have turned into our version of Star Trek’s ‘tricorder’. All this info will go into ‘the cloud’:

So we’re getting to the stage where all data is useful: so long as it is faithfully produced. Sadly, we know from PACE that data will have to be graded by association with researcher, and those who cannot be trusted will have their data discarded. There is nothing they can do about this: if their name is on their shoddy work, it will go nowhere, and all the data they collected will be wasted.

There lies the danger of MEGA: not that it will pollute the big data, but that any good data it contains will be at risk of being discarded by everyone but Crawley and her associates. That is why patients should NOT let their data be associated with MEGA while Crawley is involved.

I think Steve has nailed it there, and as it seems unlikely that Prof Crawley will be willing to part company with MEGA, I still believe that we should sign the OMEGA (Opposing MEGA) petition to demonstrate our strength of feeling against the proposal as it stands. The original pro-MEGA petition has now been closed – perhaps because they realised that more people were taking their signatures off than were putting them on – but the OMEGA team are still promoting their counter petition. Here is their latest blog. Scroll to the end for the link to their petition or just click here.

Getting Airborne

Steve Hawkins, who often comments here at the blog and quietly does a lot of useful activist stuff behind the scenes, left the following comment/proposal on the OMEGA petition site (and added it here in response to the previous post). I thought it was worthy of a wider audience so I’m reposting it here to kick off today’s blog:

‘It seems unfortunate that there has to be a petition of this kind against what, in the right hands, and with careful preparation of protocols in advance, would undoubtedly be a gathering of very useful data; and I feel uncomfortable that this will discourage some of the very able researchers and research teams who have been brought into the MEGA group but had no part in earlier ill advised research proposals; but it seems that something of this sort will have to be done, to ensure a complete new start, and clean break with the discredited ‘science’ of biopsychosocial egotists.

‘I apologise to the, well-meaning, I’m sure, Prof. Holgate, and those others who I fear have had to be reticent in criticising poor research, because of the binding conditions that were attached to membership of the Research Collaborative, under the direction of the partisan ‘Science Media Centre’, but the time really has come to return to both freedom of speech and information in this research field, after the gambit of crying ‘harassment’ after any honest questioning, has been so clearly shown up for what it was, in the courts.

‘I would advise that a new steering group be set up for a large and inclusive, data gathering and biomic sequencing and typing study with the major emphasis on the severely affected, who are the most likely to yield clear differences worthy of more intensive study. By all means collect data from a quota of less severely disabled/sick patients as well, but only to the number necessary to provide a control match for each of the seriously ill study subjects. A similar number of healthy controls will also be needed.

‘Thus the size and expense of the study should stem from the maximum number of seriously ill participants for statistical certainty… (plus controls). If that turns out to be a very big cost Continue reading “Getting Airborne”