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It's like the plague, say germ test villagers

ON THE Ordnance Survey map of Dorset, the land around East Lulworth is marked "Danger Zone", because of the nearby army training ranges.

These days, however, the villagers are more worried about germ warfare trials than stray bullets. They claim that experiments carried out more than 30 years ago, a few miles away on the Dorset coast, have blighted their children's health, leaving them a legacy of unexplained birth defects, physical handicaps and learning difficulties.

The concerns of the residents of this ostensibly idyllic hamlet prompted the Ministry of Defence to appoint Professor Brian Spratt to investigate whether there was a link between the bacteria used in the trials and the high level of birth defects in East Lulworth.

The villagers say that women who grew up there have suffered three times as many miscarriages as outsiders and the number of children born with learning difficulties or physical handicaps is twice the national average.

Many believe that the cause of their tragedy was a bleak day in 1963 when a ship called the Icewhale anchored off the coast. The ship was involved in secret MoD germ warfare experiments, to determine how far airborne bacteria would travel.

The tests continued until 1967, and included a strain of E coli which the MoD claims was harmless but has since been linked with a bacterial family that can cause infections such as meningitis.

In his report, Professor Spratt says it is possible that some people, for example those involved in spraying bacteria from the Icewhale, could have inhaled "substantially higher" doses than others.

He says it is surprising that doses were sprayed across populated areas, given the "possible risk" of the bacteria causing disease in humans.

However, his conclusion is that the health problems of families who grew up in East Lulworth when the trials were taking place were not caused by the bacteria.

Professor Spratt may have completed his research, but the families who have watched their children struggling with disability intend to continue their fight for answers.

Jeanette Orman, one of the women who grew up in the village, suffered a miscarriage and gave birth to a son, Ashley, who has cerebral palsy. She has now been sterilised because she was so afraid of giving birth to another disabled child.

Her husband, David, and mother, Noreen Hall, began to carry out their own study of East Lulworth's health problems after the Government reluctantly disclosed details of the germ-warfare tests under the "30-year rule" in 1997.

They tried to trace everyone who had lived in the village between 1963 and 1967. Their results were startling and prompted Dorset Health Authority to carry out its own study to determine whether the village represented a "cluster".

It did not find one, but Mr Orman is now pushing for a public inquiry.

"You might as well go round the village and put a cross on every door, just like the plague," he said.

"The health authority has got to the bottom of some of the problems, but there are still many cases for which the cause remains a mystery.

"They used us as guinea-pigs and treated us with a cavalier attitude. Part of Professor Spratt's report mentions the effect of the testing on the elderly, and there were many old people in the village at the time who could have been affected but have since died.

"The legacy to the generation of women who grew up in the village has been devastating. We still want the trials properly investigated."

Of the children who grew up with Mrs Orman, many have since moved away, but Mr Orman tracked them down, and discovered that they had experienced similar problems.

Debby Chambers, now of Poole, Dorset, has a daughter, Abby, who was born with cerebral palsy. She also gave birth to a stillborn baby, and her son, Kevin, was born prematurely at 28 weeks.

Debra Woodward gave birth to a son, Daniel, whose lower left arm was missing at birth and her daughter, Rebecca, has learning difficulties.

Karen Damen has watched her son, Paul, cope with Asperger's syndrome, a rare illness affecting social skills and intellect. She says his illness has caused her untold stress and anxiety.

"I felt guilty because I felt I had failed as a mum. But then he was diagnosed," she said.

Liz Riggs-Holland, from Wareham, Dorset, knows that she will never see her daughter, Shona, have a normal childhood. The child cannot walk or talk and is confined to a wheelchair because of severe cerebral atrophy.

Mrs Riggs-Holland's whole life is dedicated to caring for Shona and looking after her son, Barry, who also has slight learning difficulties.

Her concerns reflect those of a whole community which just wants an answer. "We just want to know why," she said. "Too many things have happened in the village for it to be a coincidence."