Having looked into Irish Mother and Baby homes we know that the treatment of the mothers and children kept there was sub-standard, to put it mildly. Women and girls were kept against their will, had their names changed in the home, often had their hair cut, were given no pain relief during labour and had their children taken away from them. Children in Mother and Baby homes had a mortality rate that was up to five times higher than that in the general population. We know there were unnecessary deaths, sometimes through malnutrition and preventable illnesses. Often times it seems like twentieth century Ireland just keeps throwing one horrible thing at us after another. Finding out about the forced vaccine trials was yet another one of those moments for me.We now know that the Department of Health in Ireland authorised three vaccine trials by the Wellcome Foundation (now owned by GSK) on approximately 298 children. Sadly we also now know that this is merely scratching the surface of the total number of children subjected to pharmaceutical trials in the mother and baby homes.
Suspicions that vaccine trials had taken place on vulnerable Irish children -- many of whom were in state care -- first surfaced in the early 1990s. In 2000, a report -- entitled the "Report On Three Clinical Trials Involving Babies And Children In Institutional Settings, 1960/61, 1970 and 1973" -- was finally drawn up. The document found that 211 children had been administered vaccines during three separate vaccine trials conducted on behalf of a drugs company, The Wellcome Foundation.
More than 123 of these infants and toddlers were residents in children's homes in Dublin, Cork and the midlands when the trials took place in the 1960s and 1970s.
Trial one involved 58 children in five children's homes in Dublin, Cork, Westmeath and Meath. The trial investigated what would happen if four vaccines -- diphtheria, pertussis (also known as whooping cough), tetanus and polio -- were combined in one overall four-in-one shot. The trial was published in the 'British Medical Journal' in 1962. The final paragraph of it read: "We are indebted to the medical officers in charge of the children's homes. . . for permission to carry out this investigation on infants under their care."
Trial two, which was conducted during the summer of 1970, saw 35 children administered with the intra-nasal rubella vaccine. It involved children from St Anne's Industrial School in Booterstown, Co Dublin, and children living in the Killucan area of Westmeath. Published in the 'Cambridge Journal of Hygiene' in 1971, the trial attempted to find out if German measles vaccine, administered intranasally, could spread to susceptible contacts.
Both trials were carried out by Professor Irene Hillery and Professor Patrick Meenan, from the department of Medical Microbiology in University College Dublin, and other doctors.
The final trial involved 53 children from institutional homes. The homes were: St Patrick's Home, Madonna House, Cottage Home, Bird's Nest and Boheennaburna. A further 65 children living at home in Dublin also took part. The purpose of the trial was to compare commercially available batches of the three-in-one vaccine, Trivax and Trivax AD, with that of a modified vaccine prepared for the trial.
Dr Kiely's report said the decision to conduct such clinical trials was acceptable, given the diseases that the vaccines sought to counter. However he insisted the lack of documentation available meant it had not been possible to confirm if consent had been given by the parents or guardians of the children involved or what arrangements were arrived at with managers of the homes.
He added that this lack of information also meant he could not confirm if the Therapeutic Substances Act 1932 had been complied with in relation to the licensing of the trials.
The damning document was laid before the Irish Houses of the Oireachtas on November 7, 2000.
Michael Dwyer (Historian, University College Cork) found that 2,051 children drawn from the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary facilities at Bessborough and Sean Ross Abbey, Tipperary were part of secret vaccine trials in Ireland. In the course of his research, Dwyer says that he could find no detailed records of the trials, no inventory of consent forms and no outline of any possible side effects or illnesses caused in the children involved. Dwyer also says "the fact that no record of these trials can be found in the files relating to the Department of Local Government and Public Health, the Municipal Health Reports relating to Cork and Dublin, or the Wellcome Archives in London, suggests that vaccine trials would not have been acceptable to government, municipal authorities, or the general public. However, the fact that reports of these trials were published in the most prestigious medical journals suggests that this type of human experimentation was largely accepted by medical practitioners and facilitated by authorities in charge of children’s residential institutions."To add further to the horror, Glaxosmithkline confirmed to Newstalk Radio that the trials in the 1960's-70's left “80 children ill after they were accidentally administered a vaccine intended for cattle.”
Christy Kinahan who was born at Bessborough also spoke to Newstalk of his experience, he was left with four marks on each arm and two on his legs, he says "My arms and legs were very badly scarred. But when I asked my Mum why she basically said when you arrived your arms were very sore and they were bandaged. I didn't know anything about vaccination trials (until later). I've since been to a few doctors and they said they'd never seen anything like it – with so many injections."
In the same interview with Newstalk Sr. Sarto insists that the mothers consent was always sought for these trials. However first hand accounts such as that of Mari Steed and her mother would indicate otherwise. Mari Steed was used as a test subject during the 'four-in-one' vaccine trials carried out on her between December 1960 and October 1961 when she was between nine and 18 months old before she was adopted out to a couple from the US. She was administered the vaccine on at least four occasions at Bessborough. Ms Steed became aware she had been subjected to the vaccine trials after she retrieved her medical documents while trying to track down her mother, Josephine, in the late 1990s. Her records revealed that she received her first injection on December 9, 1960 and another on January 6, 1961. Despite being ill after the third injection on January 7, 1961, she was given her fourth and final shot on February 10, 1961, and a booster shot of polio on October 3, 1961. Josephine said the tests were carried out on her baby daughter without her consent or knowledge of her medical history. "They didn't ask me for my permission to give her that shot".
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, also known as the Laffoy Commission in Ireland, investigated the drug testing in 2001, but a court order by two doctors involved in the trials put a halt to the probe by 2003. Steed and her birth mother Josephine both presented evidence to the Laffoy Commission before it was disbanded.
The new inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes has the unenviable job of looking into all aspects of the homes and hopefully will include these vaccine trials. Many defenders of the church have claimed that since vaccines are given routinely now that it's all a fuss about nothing. However those conducting trials have a responsibility to ensure that there is consent, that the trial is designed to minimise pain and discomfort and that there is no financial inducement. The issue of financial inducement in Irish institutions is yet another question to be answered. Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has said “We have to look at the whole culture of mother and baby homes; they’re talking about medical experiments there. They’re very complicated and very sensitive issues, but the only way we will come out of this particular period of our history is when the truth comes out".
Hopefully this time around the issue of illegal and unethical experimentation on our most vulnerable citizens will not be swept under the carpet. Note:
Mari Steed is US Coordinator for the Adoption Rights Alliance
, now working in conjunction with the Philomena Project
. She is also a co-founder of Justice for Magdalenes
. Mari has written extensively on Ireland’s adoption exportation, inter-country adoption practice, US adoption activism and the Magdalene Laundries. You can read more of Mari's work here at www.culchieworks.com