Over 2,000 babies and young children at a number of Irish orphanages linked to the mass baby graves scandal were injected with a vaccine for diphtheria in the 1930s, it has been revealed.
The children were used as guinea pigs on behalf of drugs giant Burroughs Wellcome.
No evidence of consent has been discovered and there are no records of how many children became ill or died as a result.
The discovery was made by Irish historian Michael Dwyer, of Cork University’s School of History, when he trawled through thousands of old medical records.
The illegal trials – consisting of a one-shot injection of the drug – took place before the vaccine was made available for commercial use.
“What I have found is just the tip of a very large and submerged iceberg,” says Dwyer. “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.”
In one of the trials, 80 children became ill after they were accidentally administered a vaccine intended for cattle.
Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline uncovered the experiments after it purchased one of the labs involved.
GSK was in no way involved in the trials.
The show spoke to a Christy, a former child resident of Bessborough House in Cork.
“I remember speaking to my mum and I asked her why I’d do many marks on my body, she said ‘I don’t know’ and said ‘when you arrived your arms were sore and bandaged.’”
He said both his arms were badly scarred that he had 8 injection marks on his arms and two on his legs.
“Most people from my generation have one, if not two, that’s it, not as many as me.”
Documentation from the British Medical Journal thanks the Chief Medical Officers for their consent for the trials, however does not state whether parental consent was sought.
There was no laws on medical testing in Ireland until 1987.
A spokesman for GSK – formerly Wellcome – said: “The activities that have been described to us date back over 70 years and, if true, are clearly very distressing. We would need further details to investigate what actually took place, but the practices outlined certainly don’t reflect how modern clinical trials are carried out.”
Two of the homes where the drug trials on children are alleged to have taken place were Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary and Bessborough, Co. Cork. Sean Ross Abbey was the home where Philomena Lee was made to give up her child for adoption. Her son died without seeing his mother again. The story was made famous in the award-winning film Philomena.
The Sean Ross Abbey and Bessborough homes are also linked with the discovery of mass baby graves at Tuam, Co. Galway by historian Catherine Corless. The remains of almost 800 babies were found in a septic tank at the site of the home, once run by nuns from the Sisters of the Bon Secours.
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Altogether some 4,000 babies are thought to have been buried in mass graves across Ireland in the mid-20th century. There are calls for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to make a formal apology and launch an investigation into the scandal.
Kenny said he had ordered officials to “see what the scale is, what’s involved here, and whether this is isolated or if there are others around the country that need to be looked at”.
Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat. Less commonly, it can also affect the skin.
Diphtheria is highly contagious. The bacteria spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and droplets of their saliva enter another person’s mouth or nose.
Diphtheria is very rare in England because most people have been vaccinated against it.
The symptoms of diphtheria include:
a high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
a grey-white membrane developing in the throat
A diagnosis of diphtheria can be confirmed by taking a swab of the throat, nose or wound on the skin. A swab is similar to a cotton bud and collects a small sample of cells.
The sample will be examined under a microscope to see whether the bacteria that cause diphtheria are present.
Diphtheria must be treated quickly to prevent serious complications developing. If diphtheria is suspected, treatment is therefore likely to begin before any test results are confirmed.
Diphtheria is treated with antibiotic and antitoxin medicine. Anyone suspected of having the condition will be put in isolation when they are admitted to hospital.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of diphtheria. The most serious cases can be fatal.
An estimated 5-10% of people who get the infection will die from complications of diphtheria, such as breathing difficulties, inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) or problems with the nervous system.
All children should be vaccinated against diphtheria as part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule.
Adults should consider having a booster vaccine when travelling to parts of the world where diphtheria is widespread.
Read more information about the diphtheria vaccination.
How common is diphtheria?
Before a vaccination programme was introduced in 1940, diphtheria was a very common condition and one of the leading causes of death in children.
The vaccination programme has been very successful. Since 1986, there have been only 15 recorded cases of diphtheria in England and Wales, and no deaths. Diphtheria is a notifiable disease, which means that if a doctor diagnoses the condition, they must tell the local authority.
Even though the incidence of diphtheria in England is low, there’s a risk that an outbreak could occur if the number of people who are vaccinated falls below a certain level.
This risk was demonstrated by the diphtheria epidemic that struck the countries of the former Soviet Union between 1990 and 1998. It resulted in 157,000 cases and 5,000 deaths. The epidemic was caused by an increase in the number of children who were not vaccinated against the disease.