An outcry erupted in Australia yesterday over revelations that hundreds of orphan babies and small children were used as guinea pigs in experiments on vaccines for herpes, whooping cough, influenza and other diseases, for 25 years after the Second World War.
Former wards of state demanded a judicial inquiry after it was disclosed that some of the tests did not work, failed to pass safety tests in animals and caused vomiting, abscesses and other side-effects in babies.
The revelations came in a report in the Age newspaper of Melbourne, which outlined seven separate cases of such experiments taking place in orphanages in Victoria state between 1945 and 1970. The experiments were conducted under the auspices of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, one of Australia's most prestigious research institutions, and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, then a federal government body.
They took place without the consent of any of the children's parents at a time when orphanages were crowded with state wards under an official policy that children from poor families and single parents should be placed under the care of the state. Such policies continued until the 1970s.
Michael Wooldridge, the federal minister for health, said last night that the experiments should never have happened. He said they were conducted according to the medical ethics of the day and should not be judged by today's standards. "We will do everything we can to put people's minds at rest."
According to the Age, researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall institute began work to develop a vaccine against herpes simplex by conducting experiments on babies in 1947 at Broadmeadows Babies Home, an institution run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St Joseph. They chose the state wards because the infectious virus thrived in cramped living conditions and was believed to be "predominantly a disease of the poorer classes". The experiments failed. Some of the vaccinated babies caught herpes.
In another experiment, researchers from the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory tested combined antigens for whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus on wards aged between three months and almost three years, from three Melbourne babies' homes.
A separate experiment by the same institution, involving 350 babies, was conducted over three years up to 1970. In this trial, to reduce the side-effects of influenza vaccines in infants, the babies were given full adult doses of the test vaccine.
David Vaux, the Walter and Eliza Hall institute's spokesman, said yesterday that medical ethics committees with strictrules for informed consent on such trials had not been "invented" at the time.
"There were epidemics at the time of infectious diseases killing large numbers of children, especially at these institutions where conditions were very crowded. The sisters-in-charge were desperate to try to prevent their children from dying." Why the experiments on a non-life threatening condition such as herpes? "The authorities were interested in preventing children from suffering from herpes," Dr Vaux said.
Former wards who believe they might have been used as guinea pigs are demanding access to their medical records. Heather Bell, a Melbourne woman used in one trial as a baby, and now a spokesperson for a group representing former wards of state, said yesterday: "We want a government inquiry. The government were totally responsible for these children and they used them as guinea pigs. Would you use your children for medical experiments?"
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