Treatment for ME costing pounds 1bn a year

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CHRONIC FATIGUE syndrome is costing the country at least pounds 1bn a year in medical costs for sufferers, welfare benefits and other payments yet little is being done to treat it, according to a report.

NHS services are patchy and inadequate in most regions, leading to delays in diagnosis, mismanagement and lack of appropriate advice, which increase the severity of the illness and add to costs.

A minimum service for 0.1 per cent of the population - 60,000 people - should be provided, it says.

The National Task Force on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as ME, says it is no longer defensible to neglect sufferers on the grounds that it is not a real illness or that nothing can be done.

Research shows that early intervention can prevent the long-term disability associated with the condition and can save costs.

Peter Campion, chairman of the task force of eight specialists, said: "There are at least 170,000 people in Britain with this disabling disease and probably many more.

"The current failure to provide an adequate service leads to an unnecessarily prolonged and severe illness and is wasteful and costly. NHS and social security resources are currently spent on disability which could be prevented."

There are 10 specialist units in the UK, with long waiting lists, and huge regional disparities, the report says.

Help for sufferers was "impossible to find" in Cornwall, Kent, Cumbria, Sussex and Birmingham, according to Dr Charles Shepherd, medical director of the ME Association.

"But hospital care in regions like London, Essex and Bristol is reasonable. We want the same equality of treatment for ME as for any other serious illness.

"It's a lack of concern and interest on the part of doctors, rather than the costs involved," Dr Shepherd said.

The report says that the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome tend to be worst in the first year or two and that most patients partially recover and some fully recover.

However, a small number of sufferers have a progressive illness and remain very severely disabled.

It adds that the most effective treatment combines physical, psychological and social elements and concentrates on modifying the patient's lifestyle to achieve a gradual return to normal activity.

The report says an effective nation-wide service would pay for itself in saved costs and that the figure of 60,000 patients is a minimum starting point which could be increased as the necessary medical expertise becomes available.

"A substantial part of the funding could come form the transfer of existing resources," it says.