Home / Culture and Society / Hillary Johnson’s “Chasing the Shadow”

Hillary Johnson’s “Chasing the Shadow”

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

Recent events surrounding the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) failure to approve Ampligen (yet again) for treating ME/CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in lay terms) have pushed aside what was left of the media storm precipitated by the discovery, dismissal and ultimate disavowal of Xenotropic Murine Related Virus (XMRV). The disappearance of the retrovirus from the scientific scene does not mean that XMRV is dead. It lives on, regenerated by Hillary Johnson.

The March issue of Discovery magazine includes a tour de force of journalism: Hillary Johnson’s stunning article on XMRV, the retrovirus that was claimed to cause not just ME/CFS (aka myalgic encephalomyelitis), but some forms of prostate cancer as well. Ultimately, XMRV was exposed as a lab artifact, but not before creating a sensation, which Johnson vividly captures in her article.

In “Chasing the Shadow,” Johnson leads us through the dramatic twists and turns of the XMRV debate, from the original elation at the discovery of the cause of ME/CFS, to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) panic at the horrible prospect of a contaminated blood supply, to the “cottage industry” of researchers who were unable to find XMRV in ME/CFS patients, to the humiliation and public disgrace of the research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute, Judy Mikovits

Those who followed the XMRV debacle with bated breath already know the story. But do we know its implications?

Midway through her tale, Johnson puts her finger on the true significance of the XMRV scandal:

After novelistic plot twists that included a police raid, an arrest, and a public tarring and feathering of the outspoken Mikovits, the scientific community is now convinced that XMRV was a false lead. Yet the expenditure of time and money to reach that conclusion was hardly an exercise in futility. The 2009 meeting in Bethesda marked the beginning of a change in the CFS cosmos, with a slew of prestigious scientists entering the field and government officials taking a more serious view of this formerly neglected disease. Moreover, the XMRV saga opened a rare window into the way scientists and government officials respond to findings that not only challenge the status quo but have profound implications for public health.

Those final words are an echo of what Johnson wrote in Osler’s Web, her exposé of the CDC’s mishandling of the ME/CFS epidemic during the 1980s. The “window into the way scientists and government officials respond” is the same window that was opened seventeen years ago in Osler’s Web, and in its even older predecessor, And the Band Played On. It is a window that reveals a glimpse of a murky and disorganized public health system whose job it is to ignore threats to its own complacency, to squelch any dissent from the ranks of upstart epidemics, and to starve researchers who are bold enough to investigate their causes. This has been the fate of ME/CFS for the last thirty years.

Johnson ends her article on a positive note. Ian Lipkin, the world-renowned virologist who proved that XMRV was not, indeed, the cause of ME/CFS (or anything else), credited Mikovits with “opening Pandora’s box.”

“Right or wrong about this particular virus,” he says, “she deserved credit for awakening interest in CFS.”

Johnson’s final words reflect that sentiment. “For a disease that has languished in a kind of political never-never land for at least one human generation, leaving millions profoundly disabled,” she writes, “that is significant progress.”

Whether this awakened interest is sufficient to spur concrete actions, the generation of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for research into the disease, changing the CDC’s dismissive name, and convincing doctors that patients who suffer from its crippling effects are not just overworked, neurotic women who should have stayed home rather than enter the work force, remains to be seen.

Powered by

About Erica Verrillo

Erica Verrillo is the author of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Treatment Guide, 2nd Edition. She has published three middle reader fantasies with Random House: Elissa's Quest, Elissa's Odyssey and World's End. Her short stories have appeared in Million Stories, Front Porch Review, 180 Split and Thema.
  • Kelly

    Not a fan of Hillary Johnson, only because she made the presumption that ME was a variation on HIV, that a retrovirus had to be involved, when there is a lot more evidence that mold or mycotoxins (or other environmental toxins) may be at the core of the illness, as Erik Johnson and others have shown.

    But because her book was so widely read, it influenced Mikovits work, which everyone seem to wildly support, until they then blamed the WPI for all her troubles.

    In hindsight, yes, she did help bring more attention to ME/CFS, but it turned into negative attention, and ultimately an embarrassment. We shouldn’t forget that it was Mikovits who was the last to admit that XMRV was due to contamination…

  • Paula Carnes

    Kelly, what evidence caused you to decide that a retrovirus(s) is not the cause of ME/CFS? I have been doing a lot of reading on this, and I can’t see where Mikovits’ research has been disproven, or Alter and Lo for that matter. They also found retroviruses in ME/CFS patients.