Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:28 pm on 23rd January 2002.

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Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 5:28 pm, 23rd January 2002

I am glad to follow Susan Deacon's thoughtful and helpful speech. ME is a very real and distressing illness, the causes of which are still not fully known or understood. It affects not just adults, but teenagers and children, some of them as young as six years of age, and it can affect people from any walk of life. It is therefore no respecter of age or social circumstances. There is no known simple cure. The symptoms are many and varied and affect different people in different ways, but a key characteristic is chronic fatigue, coupled with difficulty in concentrating, muscle pain and increased sensitivity to touch, pain, light and, possibly, sound.

Diseases whose main hallmark is chronic fatigue have been around for a very long time. As Alex Fergusson said, even such stalwarts as Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin may have suffered from ME or something akin to it. Today, as many as 15,000 Scots could have the disease. That is more than have multiple sclerosis.

That the disease seems to be getting much more common and to be affecting younger people is even more alarming. For years, the illness was dismissed as yuppie flu. Among those who are uninformed, there is still considerable scepticism about the veracity of the disease. That can discourage sufferers from seeking medical attention. The condition is neither benign nor unimportant. The persistent inability to tackle ME scientifically and objectively has hindered progress in establishing the causes of the illness. The causes remain difficult to diagnose.

ME is considered to be a nervous disorder, but there is no specific or sensitive laboratory test for it. Diagnosis depends on careful history taking, physical examination and appropriate screening investigations. Such investigations may now be carried out by general practitioners, many of whom are able to make a correct diagnosis despite the fact that scepticism about the existence of ME as a clinical entity is still rampant. The longer diagnosis and treatment of ME are delayed, the more sluggish the person's circulation becomes and chronic fatigue symptoms become more pronounced.

To avoid ME reaching serious proportions in a generation, patients must be diagnosed as quickly as possible and Scotland should live up to its proud reputation for medical research. As the motion suggests, the Scottish Executive should start the process in the UK by commissioning further invaluable research under the remit of the national health service to establish the causes of, and cures for, this distressing and debilitating disease.

Edinburgh is rightly regarded as a great centre of medical learning in the world. I have great pleasure in supporting the motion in that context.