Democratic Party Hosts Study Group on ME/CFS

The Democratic Party’s Disability/Intractable Disease Policy Promotion group held a study group on ME/CFS at a conference room in the House of Representatives Building on May 11, 2017. The objective of the study group was to discuss ways to help bring relief to patients. 14 Democratic Party Diet members as well as the Secretaries to 23 additional Diet members attended.

With Representative Yasuko Komiyama serving as moderator, group chairman Representative Kazuhiro Haraguchi said in his opening remarks that when he disclosed [his] intractable disease osteogenesis five months ago, what surprised him was how many people are suffering, and that the study group would “give a voice to those who do not have a voice.” Japan ME Association president Mieko Shinohara then gave brief remarks, reading our request letter, and delivering the letter to Mr. Haraguchi. 

House of Councillors member Ryuhei Kawada said, “When I met Ms. Shinohara six years ago, we discussed the name “chronic fatigue syndrome” made it difficult to understand the disease. The disease is now being researched as a neurological disease, and it is classified as a neurological disorder by the WHO. A therapy called rituximab may be emerging. We’d like study this disease as myalgic encephaloymelitis so that we can create a system where research advances may be made.”

Next, National Center for Neurology and Psychiatry (NCNP) Director of Immunology Dr. Takashi Yamamura provided an informational brief to the group as a medical specialist. Dr. Yamamura is a neurology specialist who has treated and researched multiple sclerosis (MS). He explained how, having received a request from the patient association to use the technology and learning at NCNP to treat this disease, “[we] began research and seeing patients with the belief that we have to do this. One problem of this disease is that patients may not be properly diagnosed at a hospital because abnormalities do not show up on current standard medical tests. Hospitals handle this by telling the patients that there are no abnormalities or that they should visit another hospital because they may be suffering from a psychiatric illness. It is a miserable situation, which is why I believe we must develop an objective diagnostic method.” 

Dr. Yamamura explained the state of ME research, indicating that there is increased focus on abnormalities in the brain, including a PET image study indicating inflammation in the brain. Various diseases of inflammation should be treatable using drugs to effectively suppress inflammation. US patients advocated for research and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investigating the disease with the US government increasing the amount of funding. Oncologists in Norway have published two papers in which the cancer drug rituximab had a significant benefit for about 60% of patients. The issue is how to move forward in this research context. Rituximab is a drug that kills tumors of lymphocytes called B cells and is thought to be a drug that modifies the immune system, and the possibility of using immune modulators for ME is something that is discussed by many scientists overseas.

Dr. Yamamura explained his experience with treating the disease optic nerve myelitis, a disease where severe fatigue is a symptom. Inflammation occurs in the eyes and the spinal cord and fatigue is severe. He explained that in optic nerve myelitis, where the inflammatory substance IL6 is elevated in patients, drugs used for rheumatoid arthritis led to dramatic improvement of fatigue symptoms in these patients. Fatigue is closely related to the immune system and it is important to focus on the immune system.

Many of the ME patients examined demonstrated immune abnormalities. Detailed analysis of patients’ lymphocytes using state-of-the-art flow cytometry technology has shown some of the B cells with clear abnormalities. Since the drug rituximab targets B cells, it is consistent with rituximab being effective. There is a need to shift gears from conventional fatigue research to research for treatments that target the immune system, and there is momentum in this direction globally.

On June 14 there will be a meeting of the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies in the United States, and the NIH has organized a special four-hour symposium. There will be a session to study information with other researchers on immune abnormalities in myalgic encephalomyelitis and Dr. Yamamura would participate; there was momentum, and he appealed to the study group that he wanted to bring relief to patients as soon as possible.

Japan ME Association president Mieko Shinohara gave brief remarks. She recounted that “I had an onset of ME while studying abroad in the United States in 1990, by 1992 I already knew that I had brain abnormalities by MRI, an immune modulating drug called Ampligen was being tested since 1988. The disease has been treated as the neuro immune disease in Western countries. The NIH study used the Canadian Consensus Criteria as the basis for its research, a document that points to the WHO’s classification of the disease as a neurological disorder, as with the clinical guidelines issued by the IACFS/ME in 2012. It is common knowledge in the West that the disease is a neuro (immune) disease.”

She also mentioned that the phase III trial study of rituximab being conducted in Norway would conclude in October, with patients all over the world awaiting the results. There are many patients who have been ill for 20-30 years. The Ministry of Health survey made clear that 30% of patients in Japan are severely ill patients who are bedridden or close. The patients want more than anything to get better and to have clinical trials proceed. We ask that politicians and Ministry of Health officals understand the situation that patients are in and to act in a way that brings relief to their suffering.

After showing the trailer for the documentary that the Association is filming, Mr. Hiraiwa from the Ministry of Health explained the current intractable disease law and reported on ME/CFS research so far.

A lively question and answer session followed. Among the questions asked were whether Japan would be ready to test rituximab if the Norwegian study published positive results; whether there was evidence of infectious disease in light of historical outbreaks; whether there were neurologists prepared to conduct clinical drug trials; whether a specialized outpatient practice at NCNP could be established; whether the disease could be designated as an intractable; and why ME and CFS were described together. Dr. Yamamura explained that if there is a positive study result for rituximab in Norway and it is approved for clinical use, information would need to be submitted by the drug maker to the Japanese review agency PMDA before it could be used in Japan; that while in many cases a virus has been involved in triggering the onset of ME, the abnormality of the immune system continues but there is no increase in the triggering virus in the patient’s body; and that the name ME/CFS is being used for official purposes. The Ministry of Health Disease Control Division expressed that the ministry would continue to consult with Dr. Yamamura and work together with the patient association.

Representative Yasuhiro Nakane gave closing remarks. “We would like to firmly understand the wishes of the patient association. The budget has been an obstacle in medicine and administration generally, but it is the role of politicians to do something. Please accept our best wishes as we work under the leadership of Mr. Haraguchi.”

JMEA Meets Parliamentary Vice-Minister Fusae Ota

Ota meeting1JMEA held an in-person talks with Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare Fusae Ota at the Ministry offices on January 29, 2015. JMEA was represented by eight members, including three ME patients and one family member, each who braved the cold weather to attend.

Since this was JMEA’s first meeting with Vice-Minister Ota, we briefed Ms. Ota on the disease’s main characteristics as well as the serious situation of ME patients in Japan revealed by the Ministry’s 2014 patient survey.

We discussed last fall’s decision by NIH to move the leadership for ME/CFS research in the United States to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the January signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation between NIH and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED), in which the agencies agreed to strengthen cooperative research efforts including in areas such as rare diseases and infectious disease treatments. JMEA requested that Japan take similar steps to advance research on ME as a neurological disease.

We told the Vice-Minister of the rising interest among Japanese neurologists to pursue serious research on the treatment of ME. As medical research on effective treatments is the government action that patients seek most, we requested that the Ministry support research on ME/CFS treatments. (We also mentioned the widespread effort by scientists and patients to challenge the PACE study and its conclusions.)

Our patient members also appealed to the Vice-Minister with specific comments about their personal experiences and desire for effective treatments as soon as possible:

“There are so few doctors who can even diagnose the disease that it took me years to receive a diagnosis. I would like research on treatment to proceed as soon as possible.”

“I have been mostly surviving on IV infusions five times a week for the last six to seven years. I would like treatment research to proceed while I am still living.”

“Most ME patients are forced to quit school and work. There are many patients who aren’t able to come to meetings like this are who are pressed by extreme financial hardship because they are unable to obtain any public disability assistance.”

The Vice-Minister shared that she had traveled to the U.S. to attend the signing ceremony for the NIH-AMED Memorandum of Cooperation. She also explained to us that while there have been shifts towards funding disability and welfare in the U.S., Japan remains a vertically-oriented, compartmentalized bureaucracy in which the moving around of government resources is not a simple matter.

At the same time, Ms. Ota understood the need for research on treatments, and commented that more “decisive politics” is being sought within government. She believed that learning the situation of ME patients from meetings like ours (from patients themselves) was the most effective, and that she would work diligently to understand the situation. She would convey the details of our meeting to the Health Minister.

JMEA Meets with Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Health, Labour and Welfare Committee

JMEA board members met with House of Representatives member Hiromichi Watanabe, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Health, Labour and Welfare Committee on February 12, 2016. We informed Mr. Watanabe about the October 2015 NIH announcements concerning ME/CFS research in the United States, new research being conducted in Japan in cooperation with the Association, and clinical drug trials being conducted overseas. We asked the Committee to recognize the need for research on ME treatments, for the government to support more ME research, and for ME to be studied as a neurological disease in Japan.

Cabinet Report on JMEA’s 2015 Petition

Following the national government’s adoption of JMEA’s petition for public assistance for ME last fall, we will be receiving reports from the Cabinet on our petition items approximately twice annually.

We received the first such report from the Cabinet with the subject line “Petition Concerning Assistance for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis,” with the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare designated as the main responsible ministry. The report contained updates on our two petition items (for the establishing of diagnostic criteria and for inclusion in the Act on General Support for Persons with Disabilities) as follows:

(1) A research team commissioned by the Japan Medical Research and Development Agency is conducting research on discovering the cause of the disease and developing diagnostic criteria and treatments.

(2) The existence of objective diagnostic criteria for a disease is a prerequisite for the disease to be eligible to receive support such as disability welfare services under the Act on General Support for Persons with Disabilities. We are about to initiate a review of eligible diseases, building on our ongoing review of diseases designated as Intractable Diseases under the Intractable Diseases law. In the event diagnostic criteria containing objective markers for ME/CFS is established, we would like to consider the inclusion of ME/CFS as a disease eligible to receive disability welfare services under the Act, including from the perspective of the actual need for public assistance.

Meeting with the Intractable Diseases Control Division

On December 9, 2015, we met with two assistant section chiefs of the Ministry of Health’s Intractable Diseases Division (the new name of the Specific Diseases Division effective October 1, 2015), where we submitted our most recent letter to Minister of Health Yasuhisa Shiozaki.

We reported on recent international ME/CFS developments, including on research papers from Stanford University and Columbia University, the U.S. National Institute of Health’s October 2015 announcements, and ME researchers’ and patients’ push to challenge the conclusions of the 2011 Lancet paper on the PACE study. We informed the Ministry of JMEA’s outreach efforts with The Japan Society of Neurology, such as our hosting of an ME information booth at the Society’s 2015 annual conference. In light of NIH’s announcement that ME research will be under the direction of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), we requested that the health agency also advance ME research as a neurological disease in Japan.

Meeting the New Chief of the Intractable Diseases Control Division

On November 9, 2015, we introduced ourselves to Norikazu Matsubara, the new section chief of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s Intractable Diseases Control Division. We reported on our previous discussions, discussed our most recent request letter to the Health Minister, and conveyed our wishes to continue our discussions with the Division under the new section chief.

Ministry Finalizes 2014 ME/CFS Patient Survey Report

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare completed its review of the 2014 “Patient Survey Concerning the Activities of Daily Living Difficulty Levels of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Patients” report. On September 30, 2015, the Ministry distributed the final report and a summary version of the report to regional Bureaus of Health and Welfare across Japan.

We encourage patients applying for Physical Disability Certificates, assistive devices, and home nursing care to direct your local government agencies to the Ministry of Health report. We hope the distribution of the report to the regional bureaus will help make the difficult process of obtaining disability benefits smoother.

The survey objective was “to use the survey to examine and analyse the actual state of patients’ daily living, medical, and welfare situations and to prepare resources that facilitate improvements to patients’ medical welfare.” The Performance Status (PS value) Scale was used to classify patients into three severity groups; (PS value 0-5 (mild disease), 6-7 (moderate disease), 8-9 (severe disease). These classifications were used to assess the level of impairment in patients’ activities of daily living.

Among patients in the survey, mild patients comprised 31.5%, moderate patients comprised 35.1%, and severe patients comprised 30.2% (n= 248 persons). Even though patients are only able to visit doctors on good days (with doctors unable to examine patients when their health is in bad condition), there was little difference between the patients’ self-reported average PS value of 6.0 and treating physicians’ average PS value of 5.6 (according to data from treating physicians that was collected for the survey). The International Association for CFS/ME has estimated that 25% of patients are severely ill patients. Through the use of oral questioning via phone calls and home visits to moderate and severe patients, the survey was able to encompass patients who are usually unable to visit hospitals.

The report observed: “The need for assistance in activities of daily living was indicated by findings that even among mild patients, 45% needed bed rest after performing housework, with more severe impairment among moderate and severe patients. As indicated in item 23 of the survey results, the survey revealed that moderate to severe patients are dependent on family assistance to conduct activities of daily living and that, along with severe patients, patients who live alone with no family support face a serious degree of difficulty with daily living. There is a need to swiftly establish assistance measures for patients of this disease.”

In evaluating the survey, the report states that “[i]t is difficult for medical facilities to evaluate severely ill patients of this disease due to their inability to travel to doctors, and surveys which encompass such severe patients have rarely been conducted globally. Due to the very limited time period in which the current survey was conducted, it is difficult to conclude that the period was sufficient to adequately publicize the survey. We can also infer that the survey was unable to fully capture the situation of ME/CFS patients due to logistics such as the need to gather data via phone calls and home visits, as well as having family members help elicit survey responses from patients unable to respond on their own.”