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'I had no idea that I could've gotten these injections': Home survivor told he was put on vaccine trial

Councillor Francis Timmons says that survivors deserve answers on vaccines trials at mother and baby homes.

pjimage (14) Then and now - Francis Timmons as a young boy in Madonna House, and now as an independent councillor for Clondalkin Source: Francis Timmons

COUNCILLOR FRANCIS TIMMONS represents the Dublin suburb of Clondalkin as an independent at South Dublin County Council.

He spent the first years of his life at Madonna House, a mother and baby home run by the Sisters of Charity in Blackrock in Dublin.

Timmons has recently learned that, as a toddler in the home, he was an unwitting participant on an infamous vaccine programme, and now has received confirmation that he received two injections as part of a medicines trial in the 1970s.

In a letter seen by TheJournal.ie, GlaxoSmithKline Ireland confirmed to Timmons that he received a diphtheria tetanus pertussis (DTP) vaccine and a “Plain New” vaccine as part of the Trivax study.

The letter states that he was one of 19 individuals to receive the DTP and one of 30 on the Trivax study at Madonna House in 1973.

The vaccines trials came to light when the public was made aware of them in the 1990s.

Designed to test new vaccines for a range of diseases, from diptheria to whooping cough, the ethical and regulatory issues around performing trials on these children led to numerous investigations into the practice, one of which continues to this day.

“I’d had no idea that I could have been given these injections,” he told TheJournal.ie. “I’m a local councillor so people come to me for help on all kinds of things that I have to then do some research on.

I just came across this and decided to look into it further to see if I’d gotten the vaccines too. I’ve only just found out recently. It’s a lot to take in.

Vaccine trials

For over two decades now, questions asked about vaccine trials carried out on children in the 1960s and 70s have not yielded definitive answers, with State investigations still ongoing.

A 2000 HSE report from then-chief medical officer James Kiely provided details of three vaccine trials that occurred during this period by a company called Wellcome (now called GlaxoSmithKline).

The first took place for an 11-month period, beginning on December 1960, at four mother and baby homes at St Patrick’s on the Navan Road in Dublin, Dunboyne, Castlepollard in Westmeath and Bessborough in Cork.

In all 52 children were participants in this trial to test out a four-in-one vaccine for diptheria, whooping cough, tetanus and polio.

Dozens more received a rubella vaccine in 1970 at St Anne’s Industrial School in Booterstown in Dublin and in Kilcullen, Co Westmeath.

Further trials took place at a number of residential institutions in Dublin in 1973, and this included Timmons’ residence of Madonna House.

In 2014, Newstalk Breakfast reported that more than 298 children across 10 mother and baby homes were subject to experimental vaccine trials during the 1960s and 1970s.

Sister Sarto, a retired nun, who was working in Bessborough told Newstalk Breakfast that parental consent was given for these trials.

An article in the British Medical Journal in 1962 on the first trial, however, would suggest that parental consent was not sought for this one, at the very least.

The final paragraph of that article opens: “We are indebted to the medical officers in charge of the children’s homes… for permission to carry out this investigation on infants under their care.”

Answering questions in the Dáil on the matter when the issues first began to gain political traction, then-Minister for Health Brian Cowen said that the “study was carried out in accordance with the then-prevailing ethical guidelines”.

Inquiries

1405 Sean McDermot Scandals_90504961 Former mother and baby home on Sean McDermott street in Dublin. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The 2000 report by Kiely, however, propelled the government to establish a commission to look specifically at these matters in 2001. That commission was tasked with investigating “into the circumstances, legality, conduct, ethical propriety and effects on the subjects” of these trials and potentially others.

That tribunal of inquiry did not get very far however, and was shut down after a successful legal challenge by a retired doctor who had participated in the trials.

As the Irish Times reported at the time, Professor Patrick Meenan appealed to the Supreme Court after the High Court ordered him to give evidence in the trial. Meenan said that he should not have to appear before the commission on grounds of his age and ill-health.

In the following years, there has been little in the way of official action on the matter of vaccines until quite recently, although press coverage has uncovered further details about the programme in recent years.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner last year, one woman detailed how she’d made a freedom of information and data protection requests to GlaxoSmithKline.

Mari Steed said: “The file from GSK was slim but contained what was needed to confirm my participation.” She added that both the HSE and the pharma company were transparent in their dealings with her.

Investigating these matters now falls under the terms of reference for the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, which uncovered evidence of mass graves at the Tuam mother and baby home earlier this year.

The statutory terms state that the commission is “to establish the extent of compliance with relevant regulatory and ethical standards of the time of systemic vaccine trials found by the commission to have been conducted on children resident in one or more of these institutions during the relevant period”.

“We can’t move on”

Francis timmons in madonna House 44 half years ago Timmons as a toddler in Madonna House Source: Francis Timmons

For Francis Timmons, learning that he was part of these vaccines trials is just another revelation to add on to his history at Madonna House.

“My memories of Madonna House are of a dark, gloomy place,” he said. “I remember feeling sad and crying a lot. A lot of the staff were aloof and distant. I remember they were very strict.

I remember feelings of hunger and a deep sadness a lot. I still get flashbacks.

He says that the country will never truly move on from the scandals surrounding mother and baby homes until all the most important questions get some answers.

“I just don’t think we can move on properly as a society,” he said. “Not yet. I’ve spoken to 100s of people who were in my position in one of these homes. And what they tell me is always similar to my own experience.”

He is unsure as to whether his mother gave permission for him to be vaccinated on these trials but said that his mother, whom he was lucky enough to connect with years later, had never mentioned it to him.

Timmons feels it is essential that everyone who was vaccinated on these trials becomes aware of it, as it is another detail of their lives that may have been denied to them for decades.

“They should be made write to everybody to let them know,” he said. “When I realised this, it made sense afterwards.

It filled in a lot of blanks of things I’d thought I’d remembered. People don’t know they were part of it. And now we need to get to the bottom of all that.

Timmons received this information based on a data protection request to GlaxoSmithKline, and is urging others who were in mother and baby homes around the time to find out if they received one too.

“I have been on a long journey, and I’m happy and honoured to be where I am now,” he added. “Me, and others like me, deserve the truth on what happened to us in these homes.”

If you were at a mother and baby home and would like to look into the matter of vaccinations further, please contact us here

Read: “Ireland saw her as a fallen woman – but she was my mother”

Read: ‘I gave birth to my child on a metal table at 18, alone in a room in a convent’

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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