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Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 03:06 GMT
Term-time link to chronic fatigue

Children with CFS can take years to recover
The majority of children diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) first developed the illness during the autumn school term, according to research.

And most came from the top two social classes, with half in private education. Only one in five came from a broken home.

Experts believe they may know why heading back to school after the summer holiday can be the riskiest time for developing CFS - and why more priviliged children are most likely to fall ill.

CFS Children: Survey Findings
76% developed CFS between September and December
76% from top two social classes
50% privately educated
20% from 'broken homes'
56% of parents tried alternative medicine
52% tried psychological treatment
Average recovery time was three years
It is thought that the high stress environment of school, combined with the arrival of infectious illnesses brought on by the winter and the classroom environment can trigger the illness.

In all, 76% of CFS cases started between September and December. Exactly the same percentage came from social classes I or II.

And while CFS is not considered in itself life-threatening, the study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine revealed that on average it takes children three years to recover from its debillitating symptoms.

And psychologists say that the social development lost during that period can blight a child for many years more.

The difficulties of getting a firm diagnosis of CFS were also uncovered by the study, carried out by doctors at St Mary's and St Thomas' Hospitals.

Families had often tried a multitude of different doctors and types of medicine in a bid to find something that works - one had consulted an amazing 22 health professionals.

CFS is more than simply a feeling of overwhelming fatigue - often there are severe sleep problems, mood swings and muscle and joint pains.

Influenza or stomach upset

The symptoms are shared with other, life-threatening, illnesses which often have to be ruled out by tests, along with mental problems.

Dr Anita Sharma, who is researching CFS at the University of Birmingham, said many adults diagnosed with CFS often felt their symptoms had started after they had suffered some sort of infection, such as influenza, glandular fever, or a stomach upset.

She added that individuals who tended to be highly-driven also seemed more likely to develop CFS.

She speculated that a return to school in autumn might herald greater exposure to certain winter infections which together with increased work pressure could comprise a greater risk.

She said: "In addition, children are going from a relatively unregulated environment to a very structured one, and all the extra-curricular activities are starting up again."

No cure

There is no effective "cure" for CFS, but some doctors have found that giving very low doses of anti-depressants can alleviate some of the sleep disturbances that plague sufferers, and improve their overall health as a result.

The study found certain characteristics were linked with a quicker recovery from the illness.

Children whose CFS appeared to have been triggered by a definite infection or event generally made a swifter recovery, and those from poorer backgrounds were less likely to do so.

Those who developed CFS, but not during the autumn term, were much more likely to be ill four years later.

There was no relationship between recovery time and gender, age - or the number of different doctors consulted.

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