Victim in legal battle over infant drug trial
'I was used as a guinea pig in child vaccine scandal'
Published 20/08/2010 | 05:00
A WOMAN subjected to a controversial vaccine trial as a baby without her mother's consent broke her silence last night to reveal her traumatic decades-long fight for justice.
Mari Steed (50) was effectively used as a guinea pig 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.
She was given up for adoption to a couple in the US shortly afterwards and is now preparing a class action in the US courts against the multinational drugs giant responsible for the medical tests, an Irish Independent investigation reveals.
Ms Steed and three others who were also subjected to the trials are looking to separately sue the Catholic religious order that they claim facilitated the experiments in the early 1960s.
She was administered the vaccine on at least four occasions at the Sacred Heart Convent, Bessborough, in Cork, also known as the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home.
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.
Josephine, who is now in a nursing home in the UK, last night 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," she said.
Ms Steed, who now lives in Philadelphia, and a number of other victims in the US are taking the landmark case because repeated attempts to seek justice in this country have failed.
She and the three others are planning to file a class action against the GlaxoSmithKline drug company in the US courts. GlaxoSmithKline was called 'The Wellcome Foundation' when the trials were conducted.
They are also hoping to separately take a case against the Sacred Heart Order -- either individually or as a group -- in the Irish courts.
Victims have queried if the religious order received any financial payment in return for the children being used in the trials. However, it has never been established if any payment was received.
"The trials involved incredibly poor judgment on the part of all involved. We were basically used as human guinea pigs," Ms Steed told the Irish Independent.
"There are at least four of us who are aware we were part of the trials, but there are probably more out there who don't know what happened to them."
At least 211 children were given the test vaccines during three separate drug trials, says a report commissioned by then-Health Minister Brian Cowen and drawn up by the Department of Health in 2000.
Ms Steed was involved in the first trial, which took place between December 1960 and November 1961 on 58 children in five children's homes. These included St Patrick's Mother and Baby Home, Dublin; the Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Cork; and St Peter's Mother and Baby Home, Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Children from St Clare's Baby Home in Stamullen, Co Meath, and the Good Shepherd Mother and Baby Home in Dunboyne, Co Meath, also participated.
The trial examined what would happen if four vaccines for diphtheria (a life-threatening disorder caused by a highly contagious bacterial infection), pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus and polio were combined in one overall jab, known as the four-in-one shot.
However, the four-in-one jab never went into production after it failed to improve the previous standard vaccine.
Ms Steed's mother, Josephine, who was forced to give her daughter up for adoption to a US couple just months after the trials took place, insisted she never gave her consent for Mari to be used in the trial.
She added: "What happened to mothers, like myself, and the babies at that home was cruel. I am still angry and would like an apology for what happened."
However, the report concluded that it had not been possible to find documentation to confirm whether or not trials were licensed or received consent.
After its publication, the report was referred to the investigation of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, then known as the Laffoy Commission. But court challenges from doctors involved in the trials prompted Health Minister Mary Harney to shut down the module without conclusion.
Ms Steed and other victims called on Ms Harney to publicly apologise on behalf of the State for what happened.
However, Ms Harney last night insisted there would be no further inquiries into the allegations already made. The minister also declined to say if she would apologise to the victims, or if the Government would provide life-screening or counselling.
Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance said Ms Steed and other victims had been treated like "second-class" citizens.
A spokesman for the Sacred Heart Order said they would not make any comment until the case was taken. He said he was not aware of any other live actions against the order and insisted the issue surrounding the trials had been dealt with. A GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman also refused to comment.