24 May (THE TELEGRAPH) – New Year’s Eve 2011, and a psychedelic blaze of colour and sound erupted as a fireworks display heralded the start of the evening’s celebrations in the centre of Copenhagen. In his hospital room in the outskirts of the capital, the veteran BBC correspondent Malcolm Brabant calmly removed the belt from his trousers and tied one end around his neck, and the other to the end of his bed. He was convinced that he was the Devil and unless he killed himself by midnight, the apocalypse would be unleashed.
by Glenda Cooper
”That night I was absolutely convinced that the only way to stop the end of the world was for me to commit suicide,” says Brabant, 57, wryly. It was the latest of several troubling delusions that had haunted the award-winning reporter ever since a sudden illness in April 2011. At that time he was the Beeb’s “Man in Athens”, reporting on the Greek economic implosion. He, his Danish wife, Trine, and young son, Lukas, were enjoying an enviable lifestyle in a five-bedroom, three-bathroom villa. Yet less than a year later Brabant was unemployed and detained in a secure psychiatric ward, his family uprooted to a tiny two-bedroomed apartment in Copenhagen.
The reason, Brabant believes, for the catastrophic events that overtook him, was a dose of Stamaril, a yellow fever vaccine, which he had received on April 15 2011. Since then he and Trine, 53, have sought answers about why he should have so quickly descended into a series of psychotic episodes after a routine jab. Now Malcolm has written a brutally honest – and often darkly funny – account of his breakdown: Malcolm is a Little Unwell.
Sitting in their cramped but spotless apartment (paid for by Trine’s mother), looking at photographs of past assignments in trouble spots across the world, the toll of the past two years is evident. No longer the dapper, besuited correspondent, he is dressed in crumpled shorts and shirts. Medication has affected his thyroid so that he has gained a significant amount of weight. There are huge gaps in his memory and for a man with a famously outgoing personality, he appears muted. Trine pats his arm continually and gently corrects him as we share a meal of Greek salad – made by Brabant, in a poignant nod to their past life.
Before April 2011, Brabant was a familiar face and voice to many via the BBC, for whom he was a regular ”stringer’’ – a freelance reporter. He had covered the siege of Sarajevo in 1993 (it was there that he met Trine, a journalist for Danish television), and Grozny during the Chechen war in 1995, before moving to Miami and then Athens. In the spring of 2011 he had agreed to go to the Ivory Coast on a non-BBC assignment to make a film for Unicef. A yellow fever certificate was required to enter the country as evidence of vaccination against a disease which kills 30,000 of the 200,000 who get it each year in sub-Saharan Africa and South America.
Pressured for time, Brabant did not see his usual doctor, but went to a municipal clinic instead. “It was a clinic run under World Health Organisation guidelines,” he says. “There was nothing sinister about it. The woman administering the vaccine couldn’t speak English and my Greek isn’t good, so I rang up my translator, who interpreted for me. The side effects seemed to amount to the possibility of a headache and raised temperature.”
On Friday afternoon, Brabant was given Stamaril. By Saturday morning it was clear something was wrong. “When I got up, Malcolm had not made my coffee,” says Trine. “It sounds ridiculous but he made it every day of our marriage. I went downstairs and he was sitting at the table motionless, lobster red and burning up.”
When she guided him back to bed he sat down and started shivering so violently that the headboard banged against the wall. He was admitted to hospital and antiviral drugs administered, but it was only when he was given steroids, nearly two weeks after he fell ill, that his temperature came down. By then his behaviour had become increasingly bizarre.
While watching the royal wedding on April 29 — a treat for Trine who had written two books on the Danish royal family – Brabant began to display an excess of patriotism. Every time someone in uniform appeared on screen, he would jump up and salute; he burst into tears of joy on merely seeing the Duke of Edinburgh on camera. It was amusing but unnerving. Then the next day Brabant rang Trine to pass on some important news: “I told her I was the Messiah and I was here to save the world,” he recalls.
He is able to make a joke of his delusions now: he tried to use his new powers as the Son of God to make his Kindle fly across the room; wrote to a couple of BBC bosses to “forgive” them for their sins and loudly complained to the nurses that his four-bed ward wasn’t suitable for a senior member of the Holy family. But there were serious consequences for him professionally. He sent a completely incoherent email to an important contact, Bob Traa, then permanent head of the International Monetary Fund mission in Athens. Later he rang the BBC’s Rome correspondent, David Willey, to ask him to inform Pope Benedict that he, Brabant, was the new Jesus.
It was a month before Brabant recovered, but what the family hoped had been a one-off episode turned into a succession of relapses and trips around the world to find effective treatment. When the Greek health service seemed unable to help, and the family’s health insurance had lapsed, Brabant went back to Ipswich, where he grew up and his mother still lives, to get treatment on the NHS. But psychiatrists here also found it difficult to make a clear diagnosis, or get his drug treatment right.
On one occasion he escaped from hospital and made his way to BBC Television Centre where, in full Messianic mode, he attempted to “heal” Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, who had been paralysed after being shot in Saudi Arabia in 2004 by al-Qaeda sympathisers. Humiliatingly, in full view of his former colleagues, the police arrived to return him to the secure ward in Ipswich. But even after that – in Trine’s view – Brabant was released before he was really well.
Brabant and Trine decided then to move to Trine’s native Denmark. But the impact of the move saw a further deterioration in his health when the realisation that he was no longer able to provide for his family as he once had hit home. “In Greece I’d had the sunny side of psychosis,” he says. “I thought Denmark would be a place of safety, but suddenly it didn’t seem so safe after all.”
Within days of arriving, Brabant was committed to Ward 811, in Brondby, a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Copenhagen, convinced this time that he was the Devil. “I said over and over to Trine, ‘We’re cursed and doomed … You are going to die. I am going to kill you,’” says Brabant.
Yet Trine never thought of leaving him. “I take my marriage vows very seriously. You don’t give up,” she says. But it was an unimaginably painful time for her. Her own father had been treated some years previously on the same ward before later taking his life. “I remember walking down the hallway and thinking ‘this is not happening,’” she says.
Following Brabant’s failed New Year’s Eve suicide attempt — a nurse discovered him before he could harm himself — he was given lithium and his illness stabilised. He has been out of hospital for a year now with no relapses.
There is still a question over his official diagnosis — whether it is organic psychosis or bipolar disorder – and whether the yellow fever vaccine could in any way be implicated. While the vaccine has been linked to neurotropic disease (disorders of the nervous system) and viscerotropic disease (a severe muscle and liver disorder), there is no established link between the vaccine and mental health problems.
However, Brabant and Trine remain convinced that the vaccine is to blame and are determined to pursue the manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, for compensation. On Tuesday Trine will launch their campaign at the Frontline Club [for foreign correspondents] in London, while a petition calling on the company to reveal their detailed findings into Brabant’s case has so far reached 1,600 signatures.
Life for the couple and their 14-year-old son remains tough. Trine has not yet managed to find a job and they are living on benefits. Lukas has had difficulty settling into a new life in Denmark, while Brabant fears that people will not want to employ him again.
“The funny thing is that when you see your spouse being so vulnerable, it makes you love them even more,” says Trine. “And what’s kept me going is my anger. This should never have happened. No one should suffer the way my husband has.”
Diary of despair
On April 29 2011, Trine returned to the hospital. I was sitting up in a chair watching the television; it was the day of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. “This is the best of Britain,” I said. “There are so many brave people there,” and then I burst into tears.
The royal wedding was supposed to be Trine’s treat. She is an expert on the Danish royal family. But my extremely emotional state ruined the occasion. I was gripped by a severe bout of patriotism.
Every element of the ceremony seemed to provoke tears, even the appearance at Westminster Abbey of the no-nonsense Princess Royal. I stood up weeping and saluted the Duke of Edinburgh. “Such a remarkable man,” I blubbed. “He’s been such a support to the Queen.” Trine ordered me back to bed. We even missed the part where the bride and groom declared “I do”.
I began talking about guardian angels, journalist friends who had been killed or died prematurely.
They included Danny McGrory, a reporter with The Times; Kurt Schork, a Reuters war correspondent; Terry Lloyd, the ITN reporter shot dead near Basra in 2003; and Bill Frost, a journalist at The Times. The bond that cemented my friendship with them was the Bosnian War, which we all covered.
I was not hearing voices, but every time I thought one of the angels was getting in touch, it was like a mild electric current coursing through my brain.
Sanofi Pasteur’s response:
The yellow fever vaccine offers protection against a lethal disease. As of today, more than 300 million doses have been distributed worldwide. The yellow fever vaccine, as an active substance, may cause side effects in certain individuals. These side effects are scrupulously documented with health authorities and shared with healthcare professionals. Less than 10 cases relating mental disorders, including Mr Brabant’s, have been reported. None of them have resulted in a complaint.
We have no data that leads us to believe that the batch may have been contaminated. The batch [that Malcolm Brabant’s came from] had passed the numerous quality controls both with the manufacturer and the competent authorities prior to release. The batch had met all release specifications and none of the tests have shown any signal of a quality issue.
‘Malcolm is a Little Unwell’ by Malcolm Brabant is available via Kindle for £6.70 at Amazon
Malcolm Brabant’s e-petition can be found here