Orphans and babies as young as three months old have been used as guinea pigs in potentially dangerous medical experiments sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, an Observer investigation has revealed.
British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline is embroiled in the scandal. The firm sponsored experiments on the children from Incarnation Children’s Centre, a New York care home that specialises in treating HIV sufferers and is run by Catholic charities.
The children had either been infected with HIV or born to HIV-positive mothers. Their parents were dead, untraceable or deemed unfit to look after them.
According to documents obtained by The Observer, Glaxo has sponsored at least four medical trials since 1995 using Hispanic and black children at Incarnation. The documents give details of all clinical trials in the US and reveal the experiments sponsored by Glaxo were designed to test the ‘safety and tolerance’ of Aids medications, some of which have potentially dangerous side effects. Glaxo manufactures a number of drugs designed to treat HIV, including AZT.
Normally trials on children would require parental consent but, as the infants are in care, New York’s authorities hold that role.
The city health department has launched an investigation into claims that more than 100 children at Incarnation were used in 36 experiments – at least four co-sponsored by Glaxo. Some of these trials were designed to test the ‘toxicity’ of Aids medications. One involved giving children as young as four a high-dosage cocktail of seven drugs at one time. Another looked at the reaction in six-month-old babies to a double dose of measles vaccine.
Hundreds of children are feared to have been subjected to the experimental trials while in the care of the Catholic Church.
Now the victims’ cases could be reopened, as calls for the Government to deal with the scandal intensifies.
Legal action is being planned against GlaxoSmithKline and the Sacred Heart Order, which allowed the tests at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork.
Campaigner and abuse survivor John Barrett, who was born at the home outside Cork city, was used as a ‘human guinea pig’ while in Lota industrial school, also in Cork.
“We didn’t have a clue what was being done to us at the time,” he said. “We only found out years later.”
John, now 58, wants to know the truth behind the children’s ordeal, who conducted the tests and why such experiments were allowed.
Hundreds of youngsters in children’s homes are believed to have been used in trials in the Sixties and Seventies to improve vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough.
John was used in four different experiments when he was aged 12 and 13 at the Lota home.
He said: “All of the boys of my age were taken off and given tests, X-rays and general examinations.
“Lists were made of those deemed to be ‘healthy’ and we would sometimes be lined up in one of the dormitories and given massive injections.
“We didn’t know what we were being given. Later blood tests would be taken and those whose scars from the first injection had disappeared were given a second dose.
“Over a couple of years, this happened about four times. I don’t think they were the normal injections you would expect.
“There is a major inquiry into child abuse so there should be a similar inquiry set up alongside it into medical experiments on children.”
More than 25,000 youngsters spent time in Irish orphanages between 1960 and 1975, the period when the controversial one-in-four trials are believed to have taken place.
Kevin Cooney of the Adopted And Fostered Persons’ Association said: “These orphans were society’s most innocent and vulnerable people.
“The State participated in abusing the rights of children in their care. That is indefensible. There must be a full disclosure.”
Meanwhile Health Minister Mary Harney has been called on to instruct her officials to make available all relevant information regarding the ongoing vaccine trials.
The call comes following Mari Steed, 50, breaking her silence on Friday, in the Irish Independent, into how she was subjected to a controversial vaccine trial as a baby without her mother’s consent.
She said she the trial were carried out on her between December 1960 and October 1961, when she was between nine and 18 months old.
Ms Steed, who now lives in the US, and three others, are preparing to take legal action in US courts against the drugs company, GlaxoSmithKline.
Leas Ceann Comhairle Brendan Howlin, who was health minister in 1993, assured victims that an inquiry had found they suffered no ill effects from the experimental medical tests.
He admitted he did not remember the probe or its findings. The Department of Health said it was searching department archives in a bid to locate the documents.
Mr Reilly said yesterday that all the facts must be put on the table.
“It is totally unacceptable for children in the care of the State to be involved in a vaccine trial without proper information being made available, or the full consent of their parents or guardians.”
Happy pill girl’s suicide tragedy
A brilliant young artist killed herself after taking the controversial anti-depressant Seroxat.
Sharise Gatchell, 18, had been prescribed the drug without her parents’ knowledge.
They found her body when they returned home after a weekend away.
Sharise had hanged herself. A packet of Seroxat, with 30 empty blisters, was lying on her bed.
Today her father Alfred said he blamed the so-called wonder drug for her death.
He and wife Stephanie, of Lawes Avenue, Newhaven, have joined calls for it to be banned.
A coroner at Eastbourne yesterday stopped short of making a definite link.
But he said he would pass the findings of the inquest to the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, the Government’s advisory body on pharmaceuticals.
Sharise’s death is the latest in a series of cases brought to the attention of the pill’s Crawley-based manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). It insists the drug, which has become the most heavily-prescribed anti-depressant since it was first licensed in 1990, is safe.
The inquest heard Sharise, an “extremely talented” art foundation student at City College, Brighton, was initially prescribed Seroxat to help her battle shyness and depression.
But her condition deepened and she experienced dramatic mood swings, withdrawing into herself.
She agreed with her parents to come off the drug.
However, shortly before her death she was given a new prescription without the knowledge of her parents.
Mr and Mrs Gatchell went away on Friday, May 23, believing Sharise’s best friend was staying for the weekend.
Her parents returned early on Monday, May 26, to find their daughter’s body.
The empty pack of pills, dated May 7, a blood-stained craft knife and a note were on her bed.
Mrs Gatchell told the inquest: “I had no idea she was on Seroxat but she was definitely behaving very strangely. Had we known she was taking it we would never have gone away.
“She was aggressive, hostile and very depressed.
“We feel cheated that as a family we didn’t know she had been prescribed Seroxat just because she was over 16.
“We as parents should have been able to have had some input even if we could not have stopped her. With all the controversy surrounding it, why take the risk?”
Sharise’s GP, Dr Zoe Nunn, of the Quayside Medical Practice in Chapel Street, Newhaven, said she had no fears about prescribing Sharise Seroxat.
She said: “I felt she was quite chirpy and didn’t have any serious concerns.
“If I had had concerns she was at risk of self-harm or suicide I would have made sure she was followed up more closely.”
East Sussex coroner Alan Craze recorded a verdict of suicide.