Trials ‘were for children’s good and did not damage’

Vaccines caused no harm, says doctor. One used them on own children

An internal Wellcome memo at the time stated: “You will appreciate that it is difficult to arrange meaningful trials of any medicinal product in young children, as is necessary in this case.” Photograph: PA

An internal Wellcome memo at the time stated: “You will appreciate that it is difficult to arrange meaningful trials of any medicinal product in young children, as is necessary in this case.” Photograph: PA

Wed, Jun 11, 2014, 01:10

Medical professionals who oversaw vaccine trials at Irish mother and baby homes insisted the vaccines did no harm and were administered in the children’s best interests.

But no parental consent was sought for the trials. Doctors effectively granted each other permission to proceed in at least one of the trials.

Babies, almost all of them under 12 months and a small number of whom were either described at the time as mentally or physically “handicapped”, were used in the trials carried out on behalf of the British multinational pharmaceutical company Wellcome by two of Ireland’s most eminent medical scientists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Prof Patrick Meenan and Prof Irene Hillary, attached to the department of medical microbiology at University College Dublin, oversaw the Irish trials involving the three-in-one vaccine and its use in conjunction with the polio vaccine. But Prof Hillary insisted she did not regard them as trials. “I view them as investigations to improve things,” she said in a 1997 interview with me.

In late 1972, Wellcome wanted to do clinical trials of its DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine containing a pertussis (whooping cough) component obtained by a new method. The company, since been subsumed into Glaxo Smith Kline, believed the theoretical advantages of the new vaccine would be that it would cause fewer reactions and there would be a considerable saving in production.

An internal Wellcome memo at the time stated: “You will appreciate that it is difficult to arrange meaningful trials of any medicinal product in young children, as is necessary in this case.”

The National Drugs Advisory Board gave Wellcome general approval in April 1973 for a new DTP vaccine to be used in clinical trials in Ireland. Soon after, a trial was carried out at two children’s homes in Dún Laoghaire: Bird’s Nest and the Cottage Home.

Two separate groups were used for the trial; 53 children in homes received the new vaccine, while 65 children in the wider community were given the existing vaccine. The records of the vaccinations in the children’s homes show that at least three of the infants vaccinated were either mentally or physically disabled.

None of those outside the homes who were vaccinated as part of the trial had disabilities.

The late Prof Meenan confirmed in a 1997 interview that he had presided over a number of trials at children’s homes. He referred to a controversy over similar trials in Australia between 1949 and 1970 which had outraged many people. He described the Australian reaction as “reading history backwards”.

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