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Unexplained illnesses affect 5 per cent of Canadians




Statistics Canada reports that over a million suffer from debilitating medical conditions with no officially recognized cause or cure.

The information was gathered by the agency from community health surveys completed by Canadians aged 12 and over during 2002 and 2003. It reveals that around 5%, or 1.2 million, people in Canada suffer from medically unexplained illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivity, all of which we term 'environmental illnesses' on this website.

The figures indicate that 1.2% of the population are affected by chronic fatigue syndrome. Also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), the illness first attracted widespread attention in the 1980's, when much to the chagrin of sufferers, it was labeled 'yuppie flu' and those afflicted were considered to be whiners and hypochondriacs. Since that time research has discovered many abnormalities in CFS patients, mainly relating to the immune and endocrine (hormonal) systems, and the condition is now officially recognized as a biological medical condition by influential organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by fatigue that is not relieved by rest and sleep. The name is misleading however, as the condition involves many other debilitating symptoms such as muscle and joint aches, swollen glands and frequent infections, sleep disturbances, and cognitive difficulties such as poor concentration and short term memory. The severity of the condition varies between individuals but it almost always very debilitating and has a profound effect on a persons ability to live a normal life.

Statistics Canada found that around 1.5% of the population report having fibromyalgia. Like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia has only gained widespread attention in the last few decades although historical reports of mysterious illnesses bare a striking similarity to the condition. The term fibromyalgia was first used in 1976 and was intended to describe the conditions main symptom - pain (Fibro - meaning fibrous tissue, my - meaning muscle, and algia - meaning pain). Only in 1990 did the term become widely used however, when the American College of Rheumatology developed a diagnostic criteria for carrying out research on the condition.

It is interesting that fibromyalgia is usually classified as a rheumatological condition, since in fact it shares most of its symptoms with chronic fatigue syndrome. The difference between the conditions is in the primary symptoms. In fibromyalgia this is considered to be pain whereas in chronic fatigue syndrome it is the fatigue. Both symptoms can be present in both conditions however, so it is a matter of degree. Fibromyalgia is diagnosed when a patient has chronic pain, lasting more than three months, in at least 11 of 18 areas of the body. These areas are known as 'tender points'.

Finally, the figures show that 2.4% of the Canadian population suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). This is perhaps surprising, since this condition is the least well known, and in fact, is not officially recognized by medical organizations as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia now are. Multiple chemical sensitivity refers to a condition in which an individual develops acute symptoms when exposed to tiny amounts of certain chemicals, mainly volatile organic compounds (VOC's) in the air. These chemicals are present in everyday products such as perfume, deodorant, household cleaning products, soaps, shampoos, as well as things like cigarette smoke and vehicle exhaust. This condition is a terrible thing to live with as sufferers often cannot leave the safe environment of their own home, which they must keep free from chemical products that trigger symptoms. Additionally they must suffer the ridicule of both the medical profession and the public at large who do not understand what they are going through.

Although acute symptoms are triggered by exposure to chemical vapours, those affected by the condition may also have chronic symptoms which are remarkably similar to those of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. They range from fatigue and flu-like feelings to muscle and joint aches, sleep disturbances, and cognitive difficulties.

It is worth noting that there is considerable overlap between these conditions. As discussed above, the difference between a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome and one of fibromyalgia essentially comes down to whether fatigue or pain is more prominent. Those who have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome often have many of the tender points associated with fibromyalgia. Additionally, many individuals with either of these conditions also suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity, although as the figures show, many people suffer solely from this condition.

The Statistics Canada data also provides figures on how the conditions affect different age groups. For instance, the highest percentage of people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivity was seen in the middle aged group. The figures show that 6.9% of people between the ages of 45 and 64 suffer from these conditions. The report states that the lowest prevalence of symptoms was reported among young people, with only 1.6 per cent of Canadians, ages 12 to 24, affected.

As has been previously reported, women suffer from these conditions about twice as much as men. Researchers think this may be due to women's more complex hormonal systems, since disruption to hormones is central to the conditions.

Each condition was also more common among those in lower income households. Why this might be is not known at this time and the conditions are known to affect people from all backgrounds. This data does help to show the fallacy in the lingering label of 'yuppie flu' with regard to chronic fatigue syndrome however.

Although it's hard to draw conclusions from a single report, other sources have provided similar information, so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suggest that although these latest figures are only for Canada, they could be applied to virtually any developed country. In a country such as the United States with a population of 300 million, 5% suffering with unexplained conditions would mean 15 million. This is no small problem, though the attention these conditions has received so far would fool you into thinking that was the case.

John Ernst, a spokesperson for the advocacy group FM-CFS Canada, has said that these conditions cost the Canadian federal government about $3.48 billion annually. These costs incurred both through providing medical care and paying benefits to those too sick to work.

The Statistics Canada report states that in 2003, 22 per cent of those with these conditions reported consulting general practitioners more than 10 times, compared to seven per cent of those without the conditions, the study stated. Those of us who are personally affected by these illnesses know just how much of an affect they have on a persons ability to work and earn a living. Many have been out of work for many many years. The report indicates that 25% of those suffering required help with everyday tasks such as dressing, bathing and taking medication. Respected medical figures such as Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC, have said that the level of disability caused by chronic fatigue syndrome and other unexplained illnesses is very much under appreciated. Others have said that these conditions involve disability comparable or worse than serious illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

In conclusion, this report from Statistics Canada underlines both the extent to which unexplained illnesses are common in the population of Canada, and by extension developed nations as a whole, as well as the serious disability they cause. These illnesses affect many people, cause much suffering and disability, and place a great burden on society through loss of workforce and pressures on medical services and welfare systems.

Thankfully governments and medical agencies are starting to recognize these facts and focusing more attention on research to uncover what causes them that will hopefully lead to effective treatments in the future. Last autumn the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded grants to seven research teams and the CDC announced a $4.5m educate physicians and the public about chronic fatigue syndrome. This is all welcome news, especially with regard to chronic fatigue syndrome, but more could be done to make sufferers lives easier by making welfare system more accessible and providing more opportunities for sufferers to get back into work at their own pace. Additionally, although chronic fatigue syndrome seems to be hitting the headlines, fibromyalgia, and especially multiple chemical sensitivity, are still being widely ignored.



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