The Irish Catholic children’s home scandal–it’s NOT about vaccines

children-at-st-marysThere’s an appalling story out of Ireland that has dominated the news for the past few days. Over a period of 35 years, St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a Catholic home for unwed mothers in County Galway (on the west coast of Ireland), apparently buried some children in a sewer system after dying in that home. You might have heard from some irresponsible journalists that over 800 children were buried in the septic tank, without questioning whether 800 bodies could actually be buried in the septic system, and without determining when the home was moved to a County sanitary sewer system, making it impossible to dump dead children in the septic tank. OK, that’s a small point.

According to the individual who actually uncovered this atrocity, Catherine Corless, an academic historian, she claims, through her research of birth records and other information, around 800 children died at this home over 36 years. The Irish Times reports, “between 1925, when the home opened, and 1937 the tank remained in use. During that period 204 children died at the home. Corless admits that it now seems impossible to her that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank.” OK, it’s sad and maddening that 22 children died every year at this home, even if infant mortality rates were substantially higher back then because of malnutrition and vaccine preventable diseases (like measles, mumps, polio, rotavirus and others) that would run rampant through closed quarters like that.

So the first myth we need to debunk is that there are 800 bodies buried in a septic tank–there aren’t. But, like I’ve said, that’s really just a minor point (setting aside the atrocity itself, which we’ll address later), because there are some other issues that have arisen with this story that also need to be discussed honestly.

Some of us sarcastically suspected that the antivaccination cult would use this story for some nefarious purpose. Regrettably, the story did get linked to vaccination by incompetent journalists rather than antivaccination lunatics, but we can trust that those vaccine deniers will do all they can to make this story a zombie trope. So, in the vast library of silly antivaccine myths, this has a kernel of truth, but the false balance reporting of the mainstream press gets in the way of facts..

One article, provocatively titled Irish Care Home Scandal Grows As Children Revealed To Be Used As Vaccine Guinea PigsAnother one is titled, The Catholic Irish babies scandal: It gets much worse. Each of the stories recount clinical trials done on children in these homes for unwed mothers without informed consent, along with a few other ethical issues.

One of the stories reported that 80 children in five care homes (orphanages) became seriously ill after they were given an experimental vaccine intended for cattle. It is unclear why this was done, because the records from Burroughs-Wellcome, now owned by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), cannot be found. And there are no journal articles that were published as a result of this study. Yeah, I know, GSK shredded the documents to hide the truth. Or maybe 50 year old records are just lost.

©The Old Tuam Society. Early 20th century view of St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home.
©The Old Tuam Society. Early 20th century view of St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home.

In the other story, investigators have uncovered medical records from these homes that suggest over 2000 children across several Irish care homes were given a diphtheria vaccine from pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome (again) in a drug trial that ran from 1930 to 1936. The diphtheria “clinical” trial, actually fairly important in getting a diphtheria vaccine out to the public, was published in many medical journals of the time.

Both stories throw around words like “illegal” and “unethical.” But that ignores the fact that definition of what is legal changes over time, despite some who think that what is legal now was always legal. How we define ethics also change over time. So let’s review some key points:

  1. The world of medicine in the 1930’s through the 1970’s was substantially different than it is now. It was substantially paternalistic and hierarchical. Sometimes, whatever a physician said was spoken with authority, despite or in spite of evidence. Today, top medical researchers need to show plausibility and significant tests for safety well before injecting something into a human. Times have changed.
  2. According to Michael Dwyer, Professor of History at Cork University in Ireland, “the fact that reports of these trials were published in the most prestigious medical journals suggests that this type of human experimentation was largely accepted by medical practitioners and facilitated by authorities in charge of children’s residential institutions.” In other words, according to the clinical trial standards of the day, it was both ethical and legal.
  3. In fact, there were no laws regarding human experimentation with drugs in Ireland until the mid-1980’s. In case you think Ireland was backwards, the United States did not have any regulations on human experimentation on children (or adults) until 1974.
  4. Despite the revisionist history of the deniers, vaccine preventable diseases were rampant through the 1930’s. Diphtheria, nearly unknown now, had widespread outbreaks that were debilitating, if not deadly, in the 1930’s. In the 1920’s, Northern Ireland (still at that time only recently separated from the rest of Ireland) had a mortality rate of 8.2 per 100,000 people. The diphtheria incidence rate at that time was well over 100 children per 100,000. Although I hate giving credit to the people running these homes, so I won’t. They probably didn’t want to deal with diphtheria outbreaks so they jumped on board to vaccine trials not necessarily to save children’s lives, but save on doctor’s bills.

Now, if this happened today, it would be a huge scandal. And I’d be standing in line to have each and everyone of these people at GSK arrested and put into prison for a long period of time. But the fact is what was legal then may make us nauseous today, but times do change.

This is not a vaccine scandal, because it is not done today. It can’t, it would be illegal. Pharmaceutical companies would run away from anyone suggesting it. Journals would never publish it. Government regulatory agencies would be investigating.

In general, here are the general guidelines for human research in the USA:

  • The subjects in a trial must join voluntarily and be provided informed consent about the medication, device or procedures.
  • A trial performed in a healthcare or academic institution requires approval of an institutional review board.
  • The trial must have respect for persons, that they be treated as autonomous agents.
  • The patient has an absolute right to end participation in research at any time.
  • The researchers must have a right to safeguard integrity.
  • Benefits should outweigh health and economic costs.
  • The patients must be safe from physical, mental and emotional harm.
  • Patients, researchers, and outside institutions must have access to information regarding the research.
  • Everyone involved must protect privacy and well-being.

Medical research, up until 30-40 years ago, is quite different than it is today. Does this mean that Burroughs-Wellcome should be punished? Probably not, because they met the standards of the era. And despite what antivaccination cultists might claim, Big Pharma is hardly a monolithic institution with a focused group-think to bring more drugs to the market to make more money for all employees. The fact is that there are several million people employed by pharmaceutical companies across the world, and lacking any evidence otherwise, we can assume that most of these individuals are the best of the best in science and technology. I’m sure most of these employees are disgusted by what they read about this medical research in Ireland. In today’s world, there is so much institutional control and personal morals that stand over the ethics of clinical trials, in hospitals, academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies, that this could never happen in the modern world.

But what bothers me about this vaccine story is that it obfuscates the real story. That is, the horrifying history of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. From physical and sexual abuse of children, to the Magdalene Laundries (where “promiscuous” Catholic girls and women were essentially enslaved) to a Religious War with English and Scottish protestants to this scandal with these homes for unwed mothers–it is about the Catholic Church and its horrifying treatment of children. Maybe you can make a specious argument about vaccine testing in a whole different era with wholly different ethics with much different attitudes to diseases, but even then, it’s 1% of the story. The real story is the immorality of the Irish Catholic Church. That’s the direction where we should be screaming.

I am terribly angered by this story. But not for the lame reasons of the antivaccination crowd. I’m angered because of what the Catholic Church did to Irish children for so many years.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor

Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!


  • commercialshortsales

    Right, lame, unless of course you were the one given the vaccine and living with the result of some of these untested drugs and the possible damage caused by them. Sounds like you’d rather flush the church.

    • kellymbray

      That would be a start. Or at least a number of elements of the church.

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  • Toni Reid

    “Big Pharma is hardly a monolithic institution with a
    focused group-think to bring more drugs to the market to make more money for all employees.”

    No of course not, they want to make more money for the
    shareholders – isn’t that the purpose of business? It would be naïve to think otherwise. As for ethics, for example – $3 billion in criminal fines for Glaxo Smith Kline makes me think they are somewhat short on ethics. http://www.startribune.com/local/yourvoices/161408025.html

    • If you knew me personally, you’d know I have no love or respect for GSK, their management, or anyone there in fact. And I’ve written about what I think of GSK.

      http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/glaxosmithkline-fined-3-billion-fda-improper-marketing-unethical-behavior/

      • Toni Reid

        So, I’m curious. Why would you trust their products then?

        • Boris Ogon

          So, I’m curious. Why would you trust their products then?

          Hand-tipping in 3… 2….

          • Toni Reid

            Uh…so? did I miss something?

            • Boris Ogon

              did I miss something?

              Perhaps.

              “But for a doctor to inject mercury into a baby imo, is tantamount to child abuse and surely common sense must dictate that introducing a known neurotoxin straight into the blood stream is lunacy.”

              I don’t go through life assuming anything is evil without prior evidence.

              “No increased risk in the Interphone study was found overall,but brain cancer takes 15 – 30 years to develop…. So yes, Paul and Paul, you should stop kids from sleeping with phones under their pillows.”

            • Toni Reid

              The pertinent terms here are – imo – which means “in my opinion’ based on what I have read about ethylmercury.

              And “no increased risk… was found OVERALL” – because they diluted the risk by including people who did not use cellphones much and excluded people under 30 who use cellphones more.

            • Boris Ogon

              And “no increased risk… was found OVERALL” – because they diluted the risk by including people who did not use cellphones much and excluded people under 30 who use cellphones more.

              Repeat after me:

              I don’t go through life assuming anything is evil without prior evidence.

        • Because I don’t go through life assuming that Big Pharma is evil. They save millions of lives a year, so that seems to be, on the moral scale of good through evil, pretty good.

          GSK mostly got their hand kicked for marketing issues. So, to be clear, I despise their sales and marketing departments with all the passion I could muster. They’re the used car salesmen of the pharmaceutical industry.

          • Toni Reid

            I don’t go through life assuming anything is evil without prior evidence. Big business in any form, is out to feather its own nest. There is no altruism in their motives for making vaccines or drugs. While marketing for off label uses can be dangerous, it pales beside hiding safety data on Avandia for 10 years, when they knew it caused heart attacks. This speaks
            volumes about how the company operates, and whilst those developing the
            vaccines or drugs may be trustworthy, it is the management that ultimately
            decides whether or not a drug is safe to sell, how much data will be released
            and who it will be marketed to. Sales and marketing only implement the will of
            the management.

            • Boris Ogon

              While marketing for off label uses can be dangerous, it pales beside hiding safety data on Avandia for 10 years, when they knew it caused heart attacks.

              You do realize that RECORD was reanalyzed by Duke and that the connection between glycemic control and cardiovascular risk hadn’t really been on the radar at all up to that point, right?

              “Restricted access led patients to switch from rosiglitazone to other diabetes drugs of unproven cardiovascular safety.”

            • Boris Ogon

              I don’t go through life assuming anything is evil without prior evidence.

              “In fact, those who choose to immunise could be endangering my children [in New Zealand, in 2010]. Some vaccines are responsible for outbreaks of the very disease they are supposed to prevent. In Russia between 1998 and 2005, 91 cases of vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis (VAPP) were recorded….

              “Some immunisations give you other diseases. For example, the MMR vaccine which was given in the late 1980s through to the early 1990s. Numerous studies worldwide showed a significant number of people contracted [aseptic] meningitis as a result of being vaccinated, and that particular product was eventually withdrawn from the market. It is interesting to note that this was around the time of the major [group B] meningitis outbreak in New Zealand. Will we ever be told if the two were linked?

              Yah.

            • Toni Reid

              Boris Ogon – you rely on ad hominem attacks instead of debating the science.
              Swearing and insults have no place in scientific discussion.

              “ What the fuck is “the truth information” supposed to mean? Why are you performing your miserable pratfalls here? Do you think you have some sort of audience other than people who are sick to fucking death of your stupidity?”

              “You cannot form coherent sentences. You rely on weird,stereotyped, and inappropriate pseudolegal stylings. You can’t remember things that you’ve posted only hours before. Maybe you were brain-damaged beforehand; it doesn’t matter: your prose speaks for itself.”

              “No, shithead, you can’t read. What I said was that if Iwere Big pHARMa, I would hire a complete fuckwit like you. In fact, I would
              hire a fucking army of brain-dead, jabbering antivaccine morons just like you
              to make complete jackasses of themselves day in and day out”

            • Boris Ogon

              Since this communiqué was apparently so urgent that it demanded a redacted release, I might as well ask what, specifically, you find to be an ad hominem. For example, among many comments directed toward Lodwill Sudds, you saw fit to single out this:

              You cannot form coherent sentences. You rely on weird, stereotyped, and inappropriate pseudolegal stylings. You can’t remember things that you’ve posted only hours before. Maybe you were brain-damaged beforehand; it doesn’t matter: your prose speaks for itself.

              There’s nothing here that is factually inaccurate, but for some reason, which has a vanishingly small likelihood of not being general intellectual sloth as far as your performance here suggests, you completely ignore the context, in which Lodwill demands reasons for why someone would describe him as brain-damaged in the first place:

              If you claim to that I am a and the brain damaged alcoholic; why have you never had any proof of either one?

              What part of the actual response do you disagree with? Do you think most people use phrases such as “which show those again said and her repeatedly re parroted claims to be false” as a substitute for anything?

              [Edit: Indeed, I was cutting him some slack.]

            • Toni Reid

              “In 2003, epidemics of aseptic meningitis following measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
              vaccination campaigns in various nations (including Brazil and the UK) prompted
              the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety to conduct a review of vaccine-derived mumps meningitis.”
              http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1168529-overview

              “Adverse events following mumps vaccination
              GACVS considered a comprehensive review of the world literature regarding the safety of mumps vaccination, with special attention being paid to the risk of
              vaccine-derived mumps meningitis. It was noted that higher rates of aseptic
              meningitis have been described for the Urabe, Leningrad-Zagreb and Leningrad-3
              strain vaccines compared with the Jeryl-Lynn strain vaccine.”

              http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/ccdr-rmtc/04vol30/dr3007b-eng.php

            • Boris Ogon

              “In 2003, epidemics of aseptic meningitis following measles….”

              Congratulations. You were too stupid to figure out what the key word meant when you wrote the letter, were too stupid to understand the printed response, and are so G-ddamned stupid that you’re still trying to defend it four years later.

              WILL WE EVER BE TOLD IF THE TWO WERE LINKED?

              “We”? You have been told. Fat lot of good that seems to have done.

            • Toni Reid

              Boris Ogon – you rely on ad hominem attacks instead of debating the science.
              Swearing and insults have no place in scientific discussion.

              A sample of some of your work.

              “No, sh**head, you can’t read. What I said was that if I
              were Big pHARMa, I would hire a complete f**kwit like you. In fact, I would
              hire a f**king army of brain-dead, jabbering antivaccine morons just like you
              to make complete jackasses of themselves day in and day out”

              “You cannot form coherent sentences. You rely on weird,
              stereotyped, and inappropriate pseudolegal stylings. You can’t remember things
              that you’ve posted only hours before. Maybe you were brain-damaged beforehand;
              it doesn’t matter: your prose speaks for itself.”

              “What the f**k is “the truth information” supposed
              to mean? Why are you performing your miserable pratfalls here? Do you think you
              have some sort of audience other than people who are sick to f**king death of
              your stupidity?”

            • Boris Ogon

              Boris Ogon – you rely on ad hominem attacks instead of debating the science.

              You clearly don’t understand what this term means.

              Swearing and insults have no place in scientific discussion.

              I’d suggest that you pony the fuck up some scientific discussion, except for the fact that this post is about what happened in Ireland, which is not about science, but which nonetheless caused your gut–brain microwave receptors to instruct you to start babbling about GSK.

              A sample of some of your work.

              Peaches, if you want to defend Lowell Fucking Hubbs, I’d suggest you draw up an outline first.

            • Toni, you’re reading Mother Jones too much. You cherry picking one drug, which I have not investigated, while ignoring the thousands of other drugs that save lives.

              No, it is not management that decides whether a drug is safe. All well-run pharmaceutical companies have a team of people who actually have to approve whether a drug goes on the market. It is not left to one person.

              Moreover, it’s the FDA, and other regulatory authorities in Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, wherever who approve the marketing of drugs, devices, equipment and procedures. And, before you drop the strawman, poisoning the well, Big Pharma Gambit, the FDA disapproves boatloads of drugs. In fact, most drugs never get out of Phase 1 trials, without FDA intervention, simply because the company says “this is either unsafe or not efficacious.”

              You are oversimplifying without any knowledge of the system. You should be embarrassed.

            • Toni Reid

              Tbh I have never read Mother Jones, I don’t think it’s available here, and as an ex librarian I am familiar with most magazines. I
              prefer to get my information via books, for instance Doubt is their Product by
              David Michaels, I would thoroughly recommend. It’s is a real eye opener on
              the way industry works. Data re-analysis, product defense companies, designing
              studies to facilitate the desired outcome – it’s all anti science and imo will
              lead to a public mistrust of science.

              Regarding Pharmaceutical companies, I never said it was up to one person to approve the marketing of a drug. Management, ie the people who
              are at the highest levels within the company, would be the ones making the
              decision. Scientists don’t run Pharmaceutical companies, they work for them. Businessmen run companies.

              I find it hard to believe that the ‘FDA disapproves boatloads of drugs’.

              This from David Michaels on the FDA –

              “Vioxx, drug-eluting stents, and other dangerous medical
              products were approved, in part, because the current system has worked exactly
              as designed: to get the products approved quickly and, only later and
              half-heartedly, to attempt to collect data on side effects.

              New drugs and medical products are reviewed by the FDA based
              on relatively small, short-term clinical trials conducted by the firms that
              make the products. These studies are not designed to identify rare, adverse
              effects or even common long-term risks that occur after months of use.”

              …and this

              “At the same time, the FDA must put an end to outside
              advisers with financial ties to the drugs and other medical products they are
              recommending. It is unacceptable for the FDA to allow doctors and scientists
              with stock in a company or consulting relationships with that firm to advise
              FDA to approve that company’s new product.”

              David Michaels and Susan F.Wood

              http://defendingscience.org/sites/default/files/upload/Boston_Globe_Wood_Michaels_Aug07.pdf

            • Boris Ogon

              as an ex librarian I am familiar with most magazines. I prefer to get my information via books, for instance Doubt is their Product by David Michaels, I would thoroughly recommend.

              Because, as an ex-librarian, you’re familiar with most magazines. Except one that has been around for, oh, a third of a century. And you prefer (for instance, of course) a book that just happens to have a hook to the ever-popular “tobacco science” antivaccine barfing point.

              Small problem: Not actually the feverishly desired moron (this might require some familiarity with Effect Measure, the loss of which is still lamented).

            • Toni Reid

              Take a look at the GSK team – not a medical degree between the lot.
              http://www.gsk.com/about-us/corporate-executive-team.html

            • Boris Ogon

              Take a look at the GSK team – not a medical degree between the lot.

              The GSK team”? Do you have the slightest idea what “Corporate Executive Team” means? And from this crumb of cluelessness you hope to salvage “big business in any form, is out to feather its own nest” without even addressing whether your idée fixe has any bearing on the subject to hand?

    • Boris Ogon

      No of course not, they want to make more money for the shareholders

      Burroughs Wellcome was privately held, BTW.

      And $2 billion of what you’re referring to wasn’t criminal.

      • Boris Ogon

        Amusing side note: “Tabloid” was a trademark of Burroughs Wellcome before it entered the vernacular.

        Oh, and they came up with AZT, the bastards.

        Henry Wellcome assumed control of the firm after the death of Silas Burroughs in 1894. When Wellcome died in 1936, control of the company passed to a foundation he established.

        According to Wellcome’s will, all dividends paid by the pharmaceutical firm were to be used for “the advancement of research work bearing upon medicine, surgery, chemistry, physiology, bacteriology, therapeutics, materia medica, pharmacy and allied subjects.”

      • Toni Reid

        Only 1 billion in criminal fines. Yeah they’re real princes. Among their other ‘misdemeanours’ They fudged data from the Paxil clinical trials. Paxil was the drug that was linked to increased suicidal thoughts in
        teenagers. *edited – was displaying weirdly*

        • Boris Ogon

          Among their other ‘misdemeanours’ They fudged data from the Paxil clinical trials.

          Misdemeanors are still criminal. And I didn’t use the word in correcting your original assertion, which was plainly as well thought out as the typical antivaccine nut yammering about VIOXX!, something that you compound by asserting that Keller et al. (if you’ve expended the effort to get that far) was “fudged,” which implies data falsification.

          I can set out the problems there, but you don’t seem to have bothered.

  • Boris Ogon

    Some of us sarcastically suspected that the antivaccination cult would use this story for some nefarious purpose.

    And Ophelia Benson, who went with the perplexing metaphor “The Irish Tuskegee.”

    • The Tuskegee Institute was immoral and could not be justified under any condition.

      I’m not justifying what happened with some vaccine trials in Ireland, but it does not come close to what happened at Tuskegee. And it’s still about the Catholic Church.

      I replied there. Probably won’t pass through moderation.

      • Boris Ogon

        The Tuskegee Institute was immoral and could not be justified under any condition.

        It’s much more justifiable more defensible than most people think, but that would be a digression. As with the pro-disease crowd, Benson has only a single interest, and it can’t be bothered to discriminate between administering something and not administering something.

        [N.b. substantive edit. I went back and reread Brandt.]

        • Unfortunately, if you try to defend what was done at the Tuskegee Institute, you’re either branded as a racist or a demon of some sort.

          Nevertheless, I think that what happened with the vaccine testing in Ireland was more defensible than at Tuskegee.

  • Brian Axness

    Thank-you for this very well written article. Everything about this story should disgust modern day readers. But, it is irrelevant to the vaccination practices of today.

  • Dorit Reiss

    Thanks for clarifying all that.