Virology blog post, by David Tuller, DrPH, 10 July 2017: Trial By Error: The CDC Drops CBT/GET
Just as The Lancet has published more “evidence” for graded exercise, the CDC has moved decisively in the opposite direction. In revamping the information on the part of its website geared toward the general public, the agency has “disappeared” all mention of CBT and GET as treatment or management strategies. Patients and advocates have long pushed for this step, as did Julie Rehmeyer and I in a New York Times opinion piece in March.
Although the revised text is dated as having been reviewed on May 30th, it apparently went live sometime during the first week of July. (The CDC has still not revised the pages designed for health care providers, although old information has been removed. The agency calls the illness ME/CFS.)For advocates, the CDC’s removal of the CBT/GET recommendations represents a major victory. “I think it’s huge,” said Mary Dimmock, an advocate who has long pressured the CDC to revise its website. Given the agency’s stature, she added, the decision could have widespread impact, not just in the U.S. but internationally as well. Many health care providers and institutions here and abroad look to the CDC for guidance in public health matters.
“So many patients have been made worse by the treatments,” said Dimmock, who became an advocate after her son became seriously ill several years ago. “While there is more to be done, removing these recommendations is a significant step forward in protecting ME patients from harm.”
In the revision, the CDC website has dropped the agency’s 1994 definition of the illness. The new definition, based on the one proposed in a 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine (now the Academy of Medicine), requires the presence of “post-exertional malaise.” In the 1994 definition, that was only one of eight optional symptoms. The immediate implication of the shift is that GET should likely be considered contraindicated, given the premium this intervention places on steadily boosting activity levels. The form of CBT prescribed in PACE could also be contraindicated, since the ultimate goal of that intervention is likewise to increase activity. (The CDC has not adopted the name proposed by the IOM report, “systemic exertion intolerance disease.”)
In addition to symptomatic relief, the revised CDC website suggests such management strategies as a balanced diet, nutritional supplements and complementary medicine. Here’s some of the new language on managing the illness that has displaced the previous sections on GET and CBT:
*Avoiding ‘push-and-crash’ cycles through carefully managing activity. “Push-and-crash” cycles are when someone with ME/CFS is having a good day and tries to push to do more than they would normally attempt (do too much, crash, rest, start to feel a little better, do too much once again). This can then lead to a “crash” (worsening of ME/CFS symptoms). Finding ways to make activities easier may be helpful, like sitting while doing the laundry or showering, taking frequent breaks, and dividing large tasks into smaller steps.
*Talking with a therapist to help find strategies to cope with the illness and its impact on daily life and relationships.
Of course, avoiding “push-and-crash” is what patients already do when they practice pacing. The “push-and-crash” language itself appears to be closely aligned with the arguments provided by the PACE investigators and their colleagues; many patients might describe their experiences differently. Nevertheless, removing the CBT/GET recommendations is a welcome step, if overdue. For years, patients and advocates pointed out the problems with PACE and related research, and also cited the evidence that too much exertion caused harm because of physiological abnormalities, not the deconditioning presumed by CBT and GET. But until now, the agency refused to make the necessary changes.