‘Hay Festival: Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME’: Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2011

June 5, 2011

From the Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2011 (story by Bryony Gordon)

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

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 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.”

10 thoughts on “‘Hay Festival: Yvette Cooper talks of battle with ME’: Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2011”

  1. If Cooper had ME, which the majority (about 95%) don’t recover from, then why when she was in Government did she fail to do anything about it? Why was there no funding into biomedical research in all that time? Why did she not have the courage to stand up in Parliament and say that this is wrong? Throughout this interview only fatigue is mentioned, well that is not ME.

  2. 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 All.org

  3. Charlie, I noticed that bit, too. Perhaps someone will write to the Telegraph to put them straight?

  4. Tony, thanks for posting this. I hadn’t read it before and it’s one of the best articles about ME/CFS I have ever read.

  5. Yes that is a good article.

    It’s a tragedy that things seem to have deteriorated as much or more than they’ve improved, during the 15yrs since it was written.

  6. I emailed Yvette Cooper yesterday to ask her if she could please point out this alarming misrepresentation of our illness (‘symptoms can last for several months’) to The Telegraph. If she has indeed suffered from ME – and not a self-limiting post-viral state – she is in a unique position to highlight the catastrophic effects of the illness to the public as well as other MPs. I also asked HarperCollins to send her a copy of The State of Me and they have kindly said they will do so.

  7. Why has the ME Association published such an awful article without an editorial header? People come to you for definitive facts on ME and your leave unchallenged sentences such as “The symptoms last for several months.” Press, sufferers and supporters of sufferers will see this and take it as facts.

    I don;t know of anyone with mE who has had symptoms last for “several months”. PVS, etc…yes, that’s the case.

    Yvette Cooper has publically said that her consultant told her that 90% of people recover within the first year. She has repeated this and it has been in the press….her consultant Professor Weir had to then publically announce he said that 90% of people who DO recover, recover within the first year – that leaves very low odds for anyone who doesn’t recover within those 12 months. However. it has been Ms Cooper’s mission to let everyone know they can recover quickly..

    The article is very, very unhelpful and unfactual. It should never have been posted as is….

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