IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Chronic fatigue is a real illness, gov't says

Chronic fatigue syndrome has been a controversial topic in medicine for decades with some doctors insisting there is no such thing. But the federal public health agency has declared that it is real and is seeking ways to help people with the illness. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

Jennie Spotilla was embarking on a successful career as a lawyer when she was struck down.

"It felt like someone took a ton of bricks and just dumped it on my head," Spotilla says. "The worst flu I could possibly imagine."

But it has lasted 12 years. She long ago was forced to stop working.

"An average day, if it's a good day, I'm able to get up, take a shower, take care of my dog," she says.

Doctors could not find a simple cause for her illness. They diagnosed it as chronic fatigue syndrome. That's been a controversial topic in medicine for decades, with some doctors insisting there is no such thing.

But now the top federal public heath agency is declaring that it is real, and that it affects more than 1 million Americans — four times as many women as men.

"People genuinely are suffering and there are things we can do to genuinely help them," says Dr. Julie Gerberding, who heads the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). "And we need to take this seriously as a real illness for a lot of people."

Jennie Spotilla, like many sufferers, often encounters skepticism from doctors and others.

"Even strangers who, if I told them I had chronic fatigue syndrome, they would think it was a joke, that I was just being lazy or making it up," she says.

The new CDC effort includes Internet tools and public service announcements to teach doctors to better cope with chronic fatigue.

And coping can be difficult, because while some symptoms can be treated, there is for now nothing close to a cure.