Almost three years after my investigation by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former medical researcher who claimed vaccines cause autism, Wendy Stephen came into my life.
It was June 2006 and she introduced herself in a 600-word email as the mother of a vaccine-injured child.
She told me that her young daughter had received the three-in-one MMR bump for measles, mumps, and rubella in 1991 and had lost hearing in one ear.
This was a rare and recognized side effect of two MMR brands that were discontinued in the UK a year after Wendy's daughter.
As a result of this injury, Wendy's family had joined a huge lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. This followed a 1998 study published by Wakefield in the medical journal The Lancet which falsely claimed that the MMR shock caused autism and chronic bowel disease.
Lawyers had recruited around 1,600 applicants for the epic litigation, which swallowed £ 26.2 million from the government's mutual legal aid fund (about £ 41 million in 2020 prices).
That action had also been the financial engine of an MMR fear that terrified a generation of young parents – and led to huge drops in immunization rates, putting countless children at the dangers of measles (which can be fatal), mumps, and rubella.
The litigation eventually collapsed due to the lack of evidence to support Wakefield's claims.
Almost three years after my investigation by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former medical researcher who claimed vaccines cause autism, Wendy Stephen came into my life
Elle Macpherson is pictured above with Andrew Wakefield in Florida
Just a few weeks after she emailed me, Wendy and I saw each other outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
A judge tied loose ends after the lawsuit failed.
By then, Wakefield had fled the UK to live in Texas. But he still faced a number of General Medical Council charges alleging fraud and dishonesty in his investigation.
Wendy was a cleverly designed, middle-aged woman with gray-blue eyes and light brown hair who followed the proceedings with a serious expression.
She wasn't happy to see me that day, but at least she was fascinated by my presence. She accused me of having Wakefield's reputation in tatters after exposing her hero's numerous undeclared conflicts of interest.
He had manipulated a mountain of evidence, I discovered, and was responsible for what the British Medical Journal later referred to as "lavish fraud".
I had also revealed that the parents of children with autism and other problems on whose allegations Wakefield based his claims were not, as they appeared, mere routine hospital referrals.
In fact, they had been recruited by lawyers and anti-vaccine groups and were therefore selected to blame MMR.
Eventually, Wakefield was removed from the medical register and The Lancet was forced to withdraw its research.
"I saw you as a destructive force," says Wendy now. "That's how we all felt back then: You only drove through the middle and destroyed everything we tried."
A hardcore believer at the time, she was a trailblazer for today's anti-vaccine activists who turned their attention to the Covid pandemic.
Thousands of anti-Vaxxers came to Trafalgar Square in London this past weekend swearing to refuse any vaccination against the coronavirus, often claiming the pandemic itself was a "joke".
The appeal of the anti-Vaxxer's message plays into the hands of those who distrust the government and big business – and especially those like Wendy who have truly witnessed their children being injured by vaccines.
"I thought there was a big possibility that Wakefield was right: that MMR caused autism and bowel disease," she says today.
& # 39; (But) I can't even explain how I was drafted into the Wakefield Army. It was pretty embarrassing when I looked back and realized I was addicted. & # 39;
On that day, 14 years ago, when I received her email, I never could have known how important Wendy would be to my ongoing research into Wakefield and his global anti-Vaxxer empire. But that news sparked a long correspondence between us that eventually led to Wendy becoming my main source in Wakefield's movement.
In the course of time she became a "double agent". Unknown to Wakefield, Wendy provided me with all kinds of confidential and hard-to-find information that exposed the scandal of how Wakefield, some parents, and their lawyers had created the public MMR crisis out of nowhere.
For years she passed me hundreds of documents, emails, intelligence reports, and gossip from the foxholes of the anti-vaccine movement.
She was also an invaluable researcher, pulling material off the Internet and spending hours with Wakefield on video and audio that I would never have had time to process.
We exchanged notes on cases allegedly caused by MMR and joked about the people behind them. She applied for freedom of information, including from Wakefield's former employer, University College London, who invited her to inspect 16 boxes of documents. Who came up on their behalf? I did.
Through their efforts, I even had Wakefield to help. For example, I asked Wendy about a confidential report he wrote. She asked him about it, he sent it to her, and I was able to quote from it in my new book on Wakefield, The Doctor Who Fooled The World.
Today she bravely renounces anonymity for the first time.
Of course, in my years investigating Wakefield and the Anti-Vaxxers, Wendy was not my only confidential source.
Many people have come to my aid with a number of revelations, such as the fact that Wakefield had filed a patent for his supposedly "safer" vaccine at the same time he attacked MMR.
Most valuable, besides Wendy, were the families of two boys who were involved in Wakefield's now infamous research at the Royal Free Hospital in North London. They handed over documents showing what they called "falsification" and "fraudulent" claims.
But while these parents delved deep into their children's stories, Wendy went way beyond the anti-vaccine movement and grew closer and closer to me in her collaboration with each year, even though Wakefield believed she was doing the same with him. "I had a situation where there were two men," she says today.
One was a doctor and the other a journalist. One of them said "white" and the other said "black". One of them was an honorable man. And one of them was a shyster. & # 39;
Wakefield's & # 39; Army & # 39 ;, she says, has three ranks, or levels. At the bottom are essentially "ordinary people" with "concerns" about vaccines (public health professionals call them "hesitant").
Next, there are those with a family member who they believe may have had a vaccination reaction.
Finally, at the top are the people who are fully focused on opposing any vaccination.
"They want to sell vaccines," says Wendy. "It's powerful, loud and you can't even really get to what it started."
When she first wrote to me in 2006, she held her nose: I was an enemy.
But since she is as much a fighter as a good parent to her child, she wondered if I could help.
The trademark of MMR that Wendy's daughter received (discontinued in 1992) contained a strain of the live mumps virus called Urabe AM9. On rare occasions, this caused sporadic complications with mumps – the very problem it was supposed to prevent. In Wendy's daughter's case, it had caused permanent deafness in one ear.
"I obviously have a lot more material," Wendy wrote to me. "I'm just asking if there is anything at all. As a journalist with an established interest in MMR, you can highlight the plight of the forgotten children who have merit in their cases."
She was 46 years old at the time. Today she is 61 years old: a former psychiatric nurse from near Aberdeen who quit the health service to raise three girls in their twenties and thirties.
With a sharp, ironic sense of humor, she calls herself "Nurse Ratched" after the terrifying character in the film "One Flew Over The Cuckoo & # 39; s Nest". Andrew Wakefield was meanwhile for Wendy & # 39; The Master & # 39; and its network of supporters & # 39; The Troops & # 39 ;.
I couldn't help Wendy with her daughter's case. Fourteen years ago, after years of falling immunization rates and measles outbreaks in the country, no editor I know would have shown the slightest interest in the rare side effects of vaccines: It would have been irresponsible to increase them. The risk of not being vaccinated far outweighs the risk of being vaccinated.
Nevertheless, we continued to correspond. And as time went on, she began to have doubts about Wakefield and the anti-Vaxx message.
I would like to think that I would have won it with my journalism – but my work was just one factor. What made Wendy mainly become a double agent was what she saw on Wakefield's network. Here was the start of a global anti-vaccine movement now in full flood over Covid-19 claiming to speak for "truth" and "justice" but do nothing of the kind.
"It was all very, very dishonest," she says of her activities. "Everyone was manipulated."
Evidence of this manipulation appeared just months after Wendy first contacted me when Wakefield emailed her. "I am most impressed with your tenacity and ingenuity," he flattered her, referring to her posts on websites about Urabe.
He said he wanted your help with a "chronology" of this saga; he had discovered a campaign opportunity.
Wendy loved it. She was a mother at heart defending her child – and Wakefield made her believe he was going to help.
"I have plans for these people," he told her about those who licensed MMR's two withdrawn brands.
I intend to secure their place in history. I will not rest while the injustice continues. & # 39;
But he didn't do any of it.
He didn't help her at all.
His interest in Urabe was not in helping the parents, but in developing an absurd conspiracy theory.
Even so, Wakefield was a public figure in Wendy's mind at the time. He appeared on TV. And she still believed he was a medical pioneer.
"I'm happy to help you in any way I can," she replied. "You will understand that it will take me some time to go through all of my material and identify anything of value that I will deliver to you in installments."
She estimates that she spent about a year on his project, doing research online, studying articles from around the world, filing requests for freedom of information, and then fighting when many were denied.
Years later, Wendy saw a video online that Wakefield had made falsely claiming that the General Medical Council (GMC) case against him – which had ultimately dismissed him as a doctor – was used to cover up the Urabe saga.
"That really is the origin of this whole process," he falsely claimed in the video as he tried to explain his shame and the shameful end to his medical career.
Wendy watched the video and knew she had been betrayed.
"He used me," she says today. “It sounds stupid, but I have to be honest with my own stupidity. But he kept asking me to think that what I was doing was going to be useful for a purpose. & # 39;
She's not alone when it comes to feeling "used" by Wakefield. During the 14 years that Wendy and I worked together, I had anonymous reports, unsolicited emails, and late night conversations with informants, mostly women, saying the same thing.
Even Wakefield's ex-wife, Carmel O & # 39; Donovan, who enslaved like a dog to defeat the GMC, would eventually be fired for Elle Macpherson, the wealthy Australian supermodel.
Wendy had serious doubts about the anti-Vaxxer claims when she was invited to a secret organization in September 2008. It was called the "New Autism Initiative" or "NAI" and was founded in 2005 by Carol Stott. An academic psychologist hired by Wakefield's legal team during the marathon lawsuit.
"We called Stott" The Colonel, "" says Wendy. & # 39; She was behind it all. She was the central member of his team. & # 39;
Andrew Wakefield's Anti-Vaxx film is pictured above
I was given a fair warning as to where the Colonel would lead their troops. Before Wendy and I talked for the first time, Stott had bombarded me – as a journalist investigating Wakefield – with threatening, sometimes obscene, emails to make it clear what she was up to.
"Try me, head," Stott introduced himself. "Believe me (sic) you will lose."
The email traffic between the members of the group revealed one overarching goal: me. They planned to make ruinous allegations against me, including making false claims that I had illegally obtained medical records and withheld documents from the GMC.
For their campaign – funded by deeply pocketed American anti-Vaxxers – they recruited the now deceased celebrity publicist Max Clifford, who was later imprisoned for sexually assaulting girls at the age of 15. Stott brought Clifford to Wakefield's disciplinary hearing.
"Media outrage will force action," Wakefield Stott promised in an email Wendy received for me.
Like a nest of Russian dolls all reporting to Wakefield, & # 39; NAI & # 39; again a public group called & # 39; Cryshame & # 39; which ran a website and organized demonstrations outside the London offices of the GMC.
"Dr. Wakefield saved our children," yelled an NAI member who was later classified as "invented" by a judge, claiming a vaccine had harmed her child.
Assisting Stott in Cryshame was one of Wakefield's many lawyers: a man named Clifford Miller. From his Kent home, this lawyer anonymously ran an anti-vaccine website that ridiculously claimed to provide "reliable information on children's health."
This was misleading enough for a licensed professional. But on the Internet, Miller published under his real name the website he himself had been running undercover, claiming it was "widely recognized as a reliable source".
Miller's main target was me too. He falsely claimed that I made up stories, admitted my reports were speculation, got paid by the pharmaceutical industry to write them, meddled in litigation, tried to damage research, and obtained secret government documents.
Through all of this, Wendy was an invaluable resource. She sent me data from emails from Miller that enabled me to locate where they came from on the Internet – and prove that Miller was the author of the anonymous website.
Stott and Miller were early adopters of the abuse and deception that are now a staple of anti-Vaxxer tactics on social media. And in Wendy's eyes, too, was a "writer", a Martin Walker who had attended Wakefield's GMC hearing for months.
Emails received for me from Wendy indicated that Walker was paid by activists, including "generous US vaccine damage activists".
And thanks to Wendy, I also learned that Walker was filing "reports" of the GMC hearing with anti-vaccine parents that bore no resemblance to what was actually going on there.
Walker assured readers that the Wakefield case was likely to fail, falsely claiming that the chairman of a five-member disciplinary committee had a financial conflict of interest.
Then there were complaints to me, and all about me, filed by a mother who was involved in Lancet research: a longtime anti-vaccine activist.
Wendy says, "I used to think the only organization she didn't contact was the Cats Protection League."
I quote these examples because they reveal the kind of people who are at the center of the anti-vaccine movement.
Another NAI member, betrayed by Wendy, who represented a poisonous mixture of malice, smear and stupidity, sank further into the mud.
After seeing a video I posted on YouTube about a Channel 4 Dispatches movie I made years ago, he went to the police and, bizarrely, claimed it was evidence that I was a pedophile.
Despite all of this, I am humbled by Wendy's work.
She has shown herself to be a great civil servant; a channel for the truth. And I believe that the truth is freedom.
Moving forward now, when her role can be revealed and facing the wrath of those who watched her, is a brave act that can benefit countless parents of young children.
In retrospect, she remembers all of the vulnerable "loved ones," the co-parents she has met in courtrooms and debates over the years as they searched for the best for their children.
But it also addresses the lies and manipulations that are at the heart of the anti-vaccine movement.
"You weren't looking for that duplicity in a parenting group," she says.
"It sounds crazy, but I really hope that some of those parents who are still wandering out there will read your book and find out the truth about what happened."
The Doctor Who Fooled the World is published by Scribe and later this month by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Brian Deer is on Twitter @deerbrian
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