STARTING secondary school can coincide with the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome, the most common cause of long-term absence from lessons, new research has revealed.
The 25 children in the study developed the illness, also known as ME, at an average age of 11 and the disease hit more than three-quarters of them in the autumn term.
Researchers from London's Imperial College and St Thomas' Hospital who conducted the study, said transferring to senior school was "a well-recognised stress requiring both physical and psychological adaptation".
The report says that a combination of these sources of stress could have contributed to the development of the syndrome through "reduction in sense of well-being".
Sufferers were ill for an average of 45 months and although 17 of the 25 recovered, eight of those 17 still suffered from mild fatigue that affected their school attendance and social life.
When the illness was at its peak, the study found 57 per cent were confined to bed and 68 per cent could not attend school for an average of 12 months.
"All the children had stopped socialising with their friends and family relationships had become strained in 56 per cent of cases," the researchers say in the March edition of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
The causes of the illness are not known, but it afects about 150,000 people in Britain. It often occurs in epidemics in communities such as hospitals and schools. Presumed to be of viral origin, it usually follows a bout of illness such as glandular fever.
Young sufferers, all members of the Association of Youth with ME, describe the illness on their website. One says: "It's like a giant Hoover has come down out of the sky and sucked out all my energy." Another says: "My legs ache continuously; my muscles twitch and jump. I start off walking quite well but soon my legs grow heavier until they can't straighten under my weight."
The association has conducted its own study of young people with ME and found that they are not getting the help they need. Its report, based on Open University research, says that sufferers receive poor quality medical care, and limited educational support when they are too ill to attend school and become isolated.
Many of the 500 young people with ME who took part in the research complained that doctors or nurses appeared to know little about their illness.
"The course of severe chronic fatigue syndrome in childhood", L Rangel, M Garralda, M Levin and H Roberts, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 93, March 2000.
Department of Health CFSME
Tel: 01375 642466
Association of Youth with ME:www.ayme.org.uk Tel: 01908 691635