By any reckoning, "E" is a formidable crusader. She is intelligent, articulate and outwardly confident. She has worked as a health service manager. She is a former school governor and a trained mediator. And, most of all, she is a loving parent. She champions her son "M" - who is autistic and learning-disabled - and for his first 18 years looked after him at home, generally "very well" by all accounts.
In America, she likely would be called a "mother warrior", a name coined by Jenny McCarthy, an actress. These are women who have concluded that their child's disorders were caused by vaccines, and will stop at almost nothing to prove "the truth". In recent years, Britain's "MMR scare" has been exported to the United States, and such mothers have rallied to networks of websites and conferences, even as infectious diseases have returned.
But "E" is British, a leading disciple of Andrew Wakefield, the former "MMR doctor", who was struck off the medical register in 2010. He is the man who terrified a generation of young parents, claiming that the triple shot against measles, mumps and rubella causes autism and a novel bowel disease. As my lengthy investigations revealed, while he secretly worked for lawyers and tried to launch his own personal business ventures, he caused vaccination rates to plummet, and triggered outbreaks of measles. The British Medical Journal dubbed his research "an elaborate fraud".
"E", I believe, is one of the scare's forgotten victims. I call them the "Wakefield mothers". Here is a woman, now in her fifties, who I have met but am forbidden to name. She has appeared at public rallies and in media, with her son. She has protested to government ministers. She has denounced judges, doctors and journalists (including me). She sued a drug company that makes MMR.
Fighting for our children
"We were all fighting for our children," says another such mother, who campaigned alongside "E" for years. "When people are struggling and they have a very heavy load to bear, if someone like Wakefield comes along and says 'I can make things right for you', in the absence of anywhere else to go, or anything to cling to, you are going to go there."
"E's" story is an archetype. I must have heard it a hundred times, while investigating the scare for this newspaper. She took her son for his MMR jab when he was aged 18 months, she said. He reacted badly and she returned to the doctor. She was brushed off as needlessly worried, but "M's" condition worsened. And later he was diagnosed with autism. It was the template media and lawsuit "Mothers' Story" that would be recited so many times, by so many mothers over the years, that a reasonable person might assume it was true.
But in a London courtroom recently, an extraordinary private trial has tested this assumption. Secretively named "A local authority and M, E and A", the case saw this mother arraigned on the most appalling allegations, and went to the heart of the vaccine controversy. This time, however, it was not a panic over measles, but the forensic examination of a Wakefield champion: albeit a woman almost as sinned against as sinning.
The month-long case was heard by Mr Justice Baker, 59, in the newly-reorganised Court of Protection. Last week, his ruling, handed down in secret in August, at last entered the public domain. And he frankly accuses "E" of the most outrageous deceit: lying about her son's MMR.
"The critical facts established in this case can be summarised as follows," Baker says, in his 92-page, 45,000-word judgment, which forbids identification of the parties. "M has autistic spectrum disorder. There is no evidence that his autism was caused by the MMR vaccination. His parents' account of an adverse reaction to that vaccination is fabricated."
I was not surprised. In the 1990s, I investigated an earlier vaccine scare. That was over DTP, the old diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis shot, then alleged to cause brain damage in babies. Parents routinely lied in compensation lawsuits - which, as a younger man, I found quite disturbing. In one trial, the judge said so, and in another it was the lawyers: the very team representing a grievously challenged boy, who, after hearing his mother's testimony, walked off the case.
Similar sagas surfaced as I investigated Wakefield, leading to his disgrace and the retraction of his research. When he unsuccesfully sued me (on the first of four occasions) I was granted a High Court order to see the medical records of children he had recruited for now infamous "study" in the Lancet. Then he was later brought to book by the UK's General Medical Council, and those records were laid out in public. They included kids - enrolled as claimants in the same lawsuit as "M" - plainly disordered before they received MMR.
Eight months before
But, if the latest verdict came as no surprise to me, I had to wonder if this mother was mad. The judge was not talking about a private life lie, of the order of "the cheque's in the post". She had sued GlaxoSmithKline - which knows a thing or two about lawsuits - and had publicly crusaded with a story that she knew was untrue, and that grew more flamboyant with retelling.
As the court heard, "M" was born in July 1989, and had a sister two years his senior. He had his first vaccinations at six weeks and at eight months, with no records of any adverse reactions. The first relevant concern was in May 1990, when "M" was aged 10 months. In an account taken later, his parents said that on one night they felt that he had three times "nearly stopped breathing", turned blue, and from then had difficulties swallowing.
"A clear indication of the trauma his body experienced from this illness was from that time onwards he could not bear his head to be anything other than upright," said an education service report of the parents' words, filed in evidence. "If it was moved lower than his shoulders his whole body would go completely rigid. For a time he lacked control over his tongue, until we managed to teach him how to keep it in his mouth."
This was almost eight months before "M" received MMR, which was given to him in January 1991. And there were no reports of any reactions, or anything related to the shot, in his notes for the next nine years. Meanwhile, "E", and her husband, "A", who worked for the fire service, cared for their son, with devotion and love, as paediatricians struggled with the boy's emerging autism and his significant intellectual delay.
"My meeting with M lasted about 30 minutes," reported Baker on the now 24-year-old "M's" recent situation. "At his choice, it started in the downstairs lounge. M seemed happy and relaxed. His ability to speak was limited but, with his advocate's assistance, using communication tools, including pictures, he was able to tell me about his journey to W House and that he liked certain sports and computing."
But, jumping back to MMR, the vaccine only appeared as an issue in records from as late as September 2000. This was when "E" became a Wakefield mother, doubtless noticing media coverage of the doctor's claims. By this time, a bowel clinic at his London hospital - the Royal Free - had become a litigation factory for parents alleging MMR damage, and "E" filed for compensation in the "class action" lawsuit three months after she obtained an appointment.