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Scientists investigating ME get 'death threats' for investigating psychological causes

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Scientists trying to identify the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome – better known as ME – are being subjected to death threats and abuse, it emerged last night.

Some patients and activists are violently opposed to any research that implies the condition is ‘all in the mind’ and not a biological condition.

Simon Wessely

Simon Wessely: The researcher has received death threats following his work on the causes of chronic fatigue

But recent studies by psychiatrists  suggest mental health techniques could help tackle the condition – which affects around 250,000 Britons – potentially scotching the virus theory.

This has led to an outpouring of hatred against the researchers and, in some cases, their families.

Among those targeted is Professor Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist from King’s College London, who has received a series of death threats.

Official complaints have also been made alleging personal misconduct – all proved to be unfounded – to universities, ethical committees and the General  Medical Council about Professor Wessely and other healthcare professionals.

Last night he said: ‘It’s direct intimidation. The threats say we’re evil and that psychiatrists should not be involved in this field. 

‘The police have been involved and I take advice about security, with my mail routinely scanned for suspect devices.’


A major British trial reported in The Lancet earlier this year found some ME patients can get back to a normal life through supervised exercise and talking therapies.

The treatments enabled at least one in three people to recover from the disorder, which leaves many bed-bound or in a wheelchair.

Despite these successes some ME campaigners refuse to accept any psychiatric explanation for the  illness. Professor Wessely said the opposition was misguided because research by psychiatrists had begun to solve the mystery of ME, including the effect of the glandular fever virus.

‘They fall victim to the label, and believe that the mere involvement of psychiatry denigrates them and denigrates the condition,’ he said.

He has gone public in exposing the vilification because he fears it is potentially as damaging to medical research as attacks made by animal rights campaigners.


Dr Charles Shepherd of the ME Association condemned the abuse of researchers but said sufferers had a justifiable complaint that almost no government-funded research was looking at the bio-medical aspects of the illness.

He said: ‘The anger, the frustration, is the fact that all this effort, all this government funding has just been going to the psychological side.’

Professor Wessely said it was untrue that research funding bodies were ignoring virological research, with the Medical Research Fund recently backing a study.

He said: ‘Psychiatric approaches that work are not incompatible with the condition being linked to a virus. These may not work for some people, but it’s wrong to deny others access to them who may be helped.

‘Some ME campaigners would rather have an incurable virus than a potentially curable disorder if it involves social or psychological approaches.’

Dr Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust said he had heard of some researchers being deterred from working on chronic fatigue syndrome, which would be a tragedy for sufferers.

A spokesman for the charity Action for ME said: ‘We strongly advocate the need for far more biomedical research to identify biomarkers which can aid diagnosis and of course more effective treatments and a cure for ME.

‘We too do not condone death threats or abuse and emphasise that such action comes from a very small minority of the 250,000 men, women and children across the UK who are affected by this very  debilitating illness.’

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July 30, 2011