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Chronic fatigue syndrome is a poorly understood disease characterized by debilitating fatigue and neuromuscular and neuropsychological symptoms. Despite numerous studies on the subject, the epidemiology of the syndrome in the community remains largely unexplored. An estimate of the prevalence in the population is presented, approximating the Centers for Disease Control criteria as well as the prevalence estimates of the fatigue symptom complex that include fatigue, disability, and neuromuscular and neuropsychological symptoms. The study population consisted of a very large, multicenter, stratified, and random sample of a general population health survey known as the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Program. Data used for this study were gathered between 1981 and 1984. The Diagnostic Interview Schedule, a highly structured mental health interview, was used to assess the lifetime prevalence of medical and psychological symptoms. Chronic fatigue was common. A total of 23 percent of the subjects reported having experienced the symptom of persistent fatigue sometime during their lives. Chronic fatigue syndrome, however, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, appeared to be quite rare in the general population. Only 1 of 13,538 people examined was found to meet a diagnosis of the syndrome with an approximation of the CDC criteria. Fatigue symptom complex was frequently related to medical or psychiatric illness or substance abuse; thus, persons meeting partial criteria of chronic fatigue syndrome were also found to be rare when psychiatric or medical exclusions were applied.