1955 Royal Free Hospital outbreak

From MEpedia, a crowd-sourced encyclopedia of ME and CFS science and history
The building that housed the Royal Free Hospital in 1955 when the outbreak occurred

The Royal Free Hospital outbreak was a cluster outbreak of myalgic encephalomyelitis at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

In 1955, between July and November, 292 members of the medical, nursing, auxiliary medical, ancillary, and administrative staff fell ill, of which 255 were admitted to the hospital.[1] The disease name myalgic encephalomyelitis was first coined to describe the illness in an editorial in the Lancet, in 1956.[2][3]

Location[edit | edit source]

The outbreak occurred at the Royal Free Hospital, then situated at 256 Grays Inn Road, London, England, which is now the Eastman Dental Hospital.[4] (The current Royal Free Hospital site is now in the Hampstead area of London.)

Onset[edit | edit source]

Onset involved symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, sore throat, gastrointestinal disturbances including nausea and vomiting, or acute vertigo.[5]

Symptoms[edit | edit source]

Symptoms included:

Usually by the second or third week of the disease, there was objective evidence of involvement of the central nervous system which appeared to be characteristic of the outbreak.

Signs[edit | edit source]

  • Low-grade fever (tended to transiently occur with relapse of symptoms)
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Objective sensory impairment and muscle tenderness
  • Extensor plantar responses
  • Nystagmus
  • Diplopia

Findings[edit | edit source]

"Evidence of involvement of the sympathetic nervous system or actual hypothalamic damage was to be found in most cases. This often took the form of orthostatic tachycardiachilliness of the extremities with increased sensitivity to cold, circulatory impairment and hypothermia."[5]

Epidemiology[edit | edit source]

Between July 13, 1955 and November 24, 1955, 292 people, of whom the vast majority were hospital personnel, became ill. Personnel from the medical, nursing, auxiliary medical, ancillary, and administrative departments were affected. Of these two hundred fifty-five were admitted to the hospital.[7] Despite the hospital census being near capacity, only 12 patients were afflicted.[8]

By October 5, 1955, the hospital had to close to new admissions to contain the outbreak and because of the shortage of unaffected staff.[6] The first to report ill were a resident doctor and a ward sister.[9] More females became ill than males, but at the time it was believed to be because of the staff's living quarters not gender, as more females than males resided at the facility.[7]

Similar cases had occurred in the population of North West London before this outbreak and sporadic cases continued to occur after the outbreak.[4]

Prognosis[edit | edit source]

For many patients, symptoms waxed and waned in intensity over a long period. A very large majority had complete recovery of neurological function.

Long-term follow-up[edit | edit source]

A follow-up study 65 years later found that there was one group of patients that recovered completely or nearly completely, a second group that recovered but was subject to relapses, and a third that showed little or no recovery, these patients remaining incapacitated.[5]

Another follow-up study in 2021 interviewed twenty-seven former hospital staff who were present during the outbreak (including a few who developed ME), and reported on their recollection of patient symptoms and circumstances at the time. The accounts of the former staff were found to be inconsistent with the McEvedy and Beard hypothesis that the illness was psychosomatic in nature, caused by mass hysteria or psychoneurosis. Observable signs of physical illness reported by the former staff included enlarged posterior cervical glands, ptosis (drooping of the eyelids), hemiparesis (one-sided paralysis), some patients crying due to extreme muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. Patients typically delayed seeking medical treatment for the first few days, which is also inconsistent with patients overly anxious about the possibility of contracting an illness. Some patients had blood tests which found leukopenia, or lymphocytes typical of viruses. While some patients seemed to be neurotic and lacked physical signs, a large number of patients were seriously ill with significant physical signs, leading to most hospital staff at the time believing that the cause of illness was an infectious disease. Some patients remained hospitalized for over six months.[6]

Five patients developed long-term paralysis in a part of their body.[6]

Notable studies and publications[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

Learn more[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. The Medical Staff Of The Royal Free Hospital (October 19, 1957). "An Outbreak of Encephalomyelitis in the Royal Free Hospital Group, London, in 1955". British Medical Journal. 2: 895–904.
  2. "A new clinical entity?" (PDF). Lancet. 1: 789–790. 1956.
  3. Ramsay, A. Melvin (October 30, 1965). "Hysteria and "Royal Free Disease."". British Medical Journal. 2 (5469): 1062. ISSN 0007-1447. PMC 1847119.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Ramsay, A. Melvin; O'Sullivan, E (May 26, 1956). "Encephalomyelitis simulating poliomyelitis". The Lancet. 270: 761–764.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Ramsay, A. Melvin (November 1978). "'Epidemic neuromyasthenia' 1955-1978". Postgraduate Medical Journal. 54: 718–721.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Underhill, Rosemary; Baillod, Rosemarie (January 2021). "Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Organic Disease or Psychosomatic Illness? A Re-Examination of the Royal Free Epidemic of 1955". Medicina. 57 (1): 12. doi:10.3390/medicina57010012. PMC 7824095. PMID 33375343.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Compston, N.D. (1978). "An outbreak of encephalomyelitis in the Royal Free Hospital Group, London, in 1955". Postgraduate Medical Journal. 54: 722–724.
  8. Ramsay, A. Melvin (1984). Post-viral fatigue: The saga of the Royal Free Disease. London: Gower. ISBN 978-0906923962.
  9. Dawson, J (February 7, 1987). "Royal Free disease: perplexity continues" (PDF). British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Ed.). 294 (6568): 327–328. doi:10.1136/bmj.294.6568.327. PMC 1245346.
  10. Waters, F.G.; McDonald, G.J.; Banks, S.; Waters, R.A. (April 2, 2020). "Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) outbreaks can be modelled as an infectious disease: a mathematical reconsideration of the Royal Free Epidemic of 1955". Fatigue: Biomedicine, Health & Behavior. 8 (2): 70–83. doi:10.1080/21641846.2020.1793058. ISSN 2164-1846.