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Hay Festival: Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME

Friday 10 June 2011

From UK newspaper The Telegraph:


Yvette Cooper
Shadow Home Secretary, and wife of Ed Balls,
Yvette Cooper MP talks in the Elmley Foundation tent
at The Telegraph Hay Festival, in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
Saturday June 04, 2011.
Photo: Clara Molden

Hay festival: Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME

As one half of Britain’s most powerful political couple, she is fiercely protective of her private life. But Yvette Cooper chose the Telegraph Hay Festival to talk extensively about her battle with ME.

By Bryony Gordon
7:05AM BST 05 Jun 2011

The Shadow Home Secretary was struck down with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – when she was just 24 and working as a researcher for John Smith, the then Labour Party leader.

“I got flu one January and it basically never went away,” she told the audience on Saturday. “It was a horrible time and I didn’t know if it would ever end. I couldn’t leave the house, I couldn’t even get out to buy a newspaper. All those things you take for granted like running for a bus were beyond me.”

Some believe that ME is a psychosomatic illness but the MP for Pontefract and Castleford said she was “lucky, because I had a good GP who took the condition seriously and never said it was all in the mind. He said it was triggered by some sort of virus. But it was an awful time.”

The illness affects about 250,000 people in Britain, leaving them severely lacking in energy. Apart from exhaustion, other symptoms can include muscle and joint pain, recurrent sore throats, difficulty concentrating and an inability to sleep well. The cause of the condition remains unclear and evidence on effective treatments had been inconclusive. In most cases, a previously fit and active person will find the illness triggered by an infection. The symptoms last for several months.

Mrs Cooper eventually recovered enough strength to go and work part time for Harriet Harman. It was at this stage that she met her future husband, Ed Balls, who was working for Gordon Brown. “I had briefly met him [Balls] before, on Hampstead Heath. I was sitting on a bench with a friend and he walked past with other friends who we both knew. But it was through the Labour party that we properly met.”

Mrs Cooper’s discussion of her struggle with ME comes after Mr Balls revealed how he has battled to overcome a stutter.

He said he had to memorise all his speeches because he could not read a script and that the speech impediment has caused him to freeze when speaking and give a halting delivery to hide the stammer.

Mrs Cooper, who briefly left politics in the mid 1990s to work as a journalist, said that her husband, now the shadow Chancellor, had originally been keen for her, not him, to run for the Labour leadership.

But while she thought about it “very carefully”, she decided that it would not be in the interests of her three young children. “I know some people think of it as letting women down, but I actually believe that it isn’t very feminist to not respect my decision.”

Mrs Cooper, who revealed a love for tap dancing and Doctor Who, also provided an interesting glimpse into family life. Asked whether Mr Balls was any use around the house she said that “he does all the cooking. I used to do a bit but now I make him do everything because he’s so good at it. I get home from work and start panicking that I need to buy a ready meal but dinner is always there laid out on the table.”

Mrs Cooper did, however, admit to making jams and chutneys. Who wore the trousers in the relationship? “I think it would be safe to say that we both do.”


The above, with comments, originally appeared here.

Two letters in response to the above article were sent to The Telegraph. They were published on the ME Free for All website:


Re: Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME, Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2011 #2

Letters in reply to Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME, Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2011

It’s very important, for M.E. sufferers, their families  researchers and doctors who are trying to treat them that, when a public figure or celebrity talks about having had M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) and now being cured, or at least significantly recovered (Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME, Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2011), we are definitely comparing like with like. If we are, it would be extremely beneficial to discover how those who have recovered have done so, for the sake of all; but if we are not, we must not extrapolate from one to the other, for fear of doing more harm than good.

Yvette may have had a severe viral infection, a common precursor to M.E., such as flu, Glandular Fever (Epstein-Barr Virus) or Chicken Pox, taken a longer than usually expected time to get over it but is now back in action, hopefully, for it never to recur – as it so often does in M.E. sufferers – but she may not have had M.E. at all. A good Celebrity example of this paradigm is Barbara Windsor, who was out of EastEnders for more than two years with what we now know was a bad case of Epstein-Barr virus. In the press photos, during her illness, Barbara looked much like an M.E. sufferer but she didn’t have M.E. She returned to the show, for a further five years and is still working at the age of 73.

Some people have one or other of the illnesses categorised within the collective bundle, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) but these are not M.E. because they do not have some of the cardinal symptoms of M.E. such as a kind of dizziness, related to changes of blood pressure (called Orthostatic Intolerance) and extraordinarily slow and delayed recovery after minuscule effort (called Post Exertional Malaise). The chronic fatigue people may have recovered because they rested up after being ‘burnt out’, physically or mentally; they may have needed psychiatric treatment or medicine; or they may have improved with an exercise regime. But – and here is the crucial part – some treatment given, especially Graded Exercise Treatment (GET), which may have helped one type of patient, may actually be harmful to people with M.E., some of them irrecoverably.

So, if Yvette did have M.E., we really need to know how she got better; if she didn’t it is far from helpful to M.E. sufferers to keep saying that she did.

Yours sincerely
Dr John H Greensmith
ME Free For

Your article (Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME, Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2011) states ‘The symptoms [of ME] last for several months’. This is a massive understatement and does ME sufferers a grave disservice. You cannot even be diagnosed with ME until you have had the symptoms for 6 months and while some do ndeed recover, the majority of ME sufferers never regain their former health even if hey improve and 25%, including children, are severely affected and housebound for many years.

I had to give up a fulfilling lecturing job and have been mainly bedbound with ME for 14 years and I know others who have had it for decades – hardly ‘several months’!

Funding for biomedical research into ME such that done by ME Research UK is desperately needed and misleading understatements such as the above do not help!

I trust you will correct it!

Veronica Jones


The above letters originally appeared here.



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