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Drug victim seeks justice to right 50-year-old wrong

Patricia McDonagh, Irish Independent, 21st August 2010

WHEN Mari Steed gave up her baby for adoption as a teenager, it sparked an emotional search for the identity of her own birth mother.

But she had no idea that the journey into her past would throw up stark revelations about her involvement in a controversial vaccine-testing regime as a baby.

And when Mari finally tracked her mother Josephine to the UK, she found that no parental permission had been given for the experimental injections administered to her as a two-year-old.

The paths the two women had taken -- both giving up their babies for adoption when very young -- bore eerie similarities and brought them closer together.

But a story spanning four decades, three generations and two continents left a fractured family with more questions than answers.

Mari's planned legal action is a last-ditch attempt to seek justice after a formal state probe was abandoned.

She was a vulnerable nine-month-old baby when she was first given the controversial 'four-in-one' vaccine.

By the time she was two, the experimental vaccine had been injected into her tiny body on at least four separate occasions.

Her mother Josephine said her permission was never sought or given, from either the multinational drug company responsible for the vaccine trials, nor the Sacred Heart order.



"What happened to mothers like myself and the babies at that home was cruel," said Josephine, who lives in the UK.

"They didn't ask me for my permission to give her that shot; they didn't ask me anything.

"The doctors and nurses gave my daughter the injection and I didn't know what it was for," she added.

"The babies were crying all day after it, but they wouldn't tell us what was happening.

"I am still angry and would like an apology for what happened."

An illegitimate child herself, Josephine arrived at the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork in 1959, after falling pregnant while working in Dublin.

In April 1960, she gave birth to Mari, naming her Mary Therese Fitzpatrick.

"I was breastfed by my mother and I have photos of both of us celebrating my first birthday at the home," said Mari, who has since dropped the 'y' from her name.

"I experienced real interactive care from my mother. She played with me and I was happy in as much as you can be in a situation like that."


But despite their growing bond, Josephine was left in the dark when medics came to conduct vaccine trials for the Wellcome Foundation.

When she handed her daughter over to participate, she had not been told the injections were part of a trial for the four-in-one vaccine.

Now almost 50 years later, Mari is determined to get justice for the trauma she endured at Bessborough between 1960 and 1961.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s three separate vaccine trials were conducted on Irish children on behalf of multinational drugs company The Wellcome Foundation, now known as GlaxoSmithKline.

Mari was involved in the first trial, which sought to find out what would happen if four vaccines were combined in one jab.

"I got up to four different shots of the vaccine. My mother later told me that I reacted by vomiting after one jab," she said.

"I feel the trials showed incredibly poor judgment on the part of all involved. It was bad science on the part of Wellcome.

"They never got my mother's consent for this. My mother only recalls being told they needed to 'give the baby routine jabs'."

The so-called four-in-one jab had never been tried in Britain or Ireland before and the effect of administering it to infants was unclear.

The standard approach had always been to provide a combined three-in-one vaccination for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, over three or four injections. Following this, the doctor would give the child three separate jabs to prevent against polio.

Mari was one of 24 infants who received the new four-in-one shot, which combined the three-in-one and a separate polio jab.

It was administered over four injections and the aim was to compare the antibody levels of children who got this new vaccine and those who had received the standard set of shots.

Mari's medical records show she received her first injection on December 9, 1960 and another on January 6, 1961.

Despite being ill after the third injection on January 7, 1961, she was given her fourth and final shot on February 10, 1961, and a booster shot of polio on October 3, 1961.


The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, also known as the Laffoy Commission, began to investigate the vaccine trials in 2001. But it never got off the ground, following court actions by two doctors involved in the trials.

It means that Mari, who now lives in Philadelphia, and more than 211 children used as guinea pigs in the three trials have never received a formal public apology for what happened on behalf of the State.

"I want Health Minister Mary Harney to apologise, but I think pigs will fly before that ever happens."

Mari and her mother, Josephine Fitzpatrick -- who were only reunited in October 2002 -- both gave evidence to the Laffoy Commission before it was disbanded.

In the four decades since she had last seen her mother, Mari had been adopted by an American couple and brought to Philadelphia.

"My mother knew she couldn't provide for me and was resigned to the fact that I had to go away," she said. "It was heartbreaking for her. She knew when she was signing the papers to hand me over that she would have to let me go."

Mari arrived in the US on December 1, 1961, and her adoption was formalised in July of 1963.

She said her parents, Helena and Joseph, gave her a "normal childhood" but also ensured she knew about her past.

During her senior year in high school, a chain of events bizarrely mirroring her birth mother's experience back in Ireland prompted Mari to begin an epic search into her origins which has spanned four decades.

"In 1978, during my senior year, I got pregnant by my high- school boyfriend," she recalled.

"My adopted mother wanted me to give up the baby. I was sent to a mother and baby home in Philadelphia and cut off from my family.

"It was pretty miserable there and I was totally powerless."

However, she said the harrowing experience enabled to her to identify with that of her mother.

"It was very hard to give up my daughter Kerry. It drove home the idea that this was a generational thing in my family," she said.

"I had never felt abandoned or rejected when my mother gave me up. I just felt she had no choice -- and I felt that more so when I gave up my own baby."


It was not until she was working at a university in Florida in 1993 that Mari came across an Irish heritage researcher who helped her search for her mother.

Like many adopted people, she had found it hard to track down some of the information relating to her past.

However, the fact that she had been allowed to keep her birth name meant she could access her birth certificate and, crucially, the medical records that provided her with evidence of the controversial vaccine trials.

In 2001, the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place and she tracked down her mother.

"A guy who had rented a flat from my mother said he would help," she said.

Mother and daughter were finally reunited in October 2002. But both are still haunted by the vaccine trials they were unwittingly involved in more than 50 years ago.

"They were using children without any knowledge of their medical history," Mari said.

"There was no chance of a follow-up, as many, like myself, were being adopted to the US or elsewhere.

"When I was giving evidence to the Laffoy Commission, I just kept thinking that I was only a baby when this happened and couldn't do a thing to stop it."

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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