Within 48 hours the Cowlins' world had been turned
upside down as their daughter, aged 16 months, fought
for breath between a series of convulsions. 'She was
going blue and fighting to get a breath. Then she was
screaming, high-pitched screams like we'd never heard.
Then came convulsions and fitting. It just went on and
on. For three days and nights we just walked around with
her constantly trying to comfort this poor little thing.
Terrifying,' said Bridget.
Tracy was permanently brain-damaged and now, aged 33,
has the mental age of a young child. 'Through the tears
I have shed over the years, and there have been many
tears, I still want to know why that happened to my
healthy baby daughter. I'm never going to stop fighting
Today The Observer can disclose remarkable new
evidence that could offer an explanation to hundreds of
parents who saw healthy babies suffer brain damage
within hours of being inoculated against whooping cough,
in itself potentially fatal to young children.
The Observer has established that around 1968 two
batches of vaccine were produced in Wellcome's
laboratories in Kent which never passed key toxicity
tests. One was 14 times more potent than the British
standard dose, the other 16 times. Each batch contained
an estimated 60,000 individual doses. A further 14
batches were not tested at all.
The Cowlins have no proof that Tracy was given her
vaccination from one of these suspect batches. She could
just as easily be one of the unlucky ones who suffered
an adverse reaction to a perfectly sound vaccine. Yet it
is the very uncertainty over the cause of damage that is
deeply troubling for parents like the Cowlins.
But what is known is that around this time Wellcome
allowed vaccines from a toxic batch to be distributed to
surgeries and clinics across the country where they were
injected into thousands of British babies over the
following three years.
Some experts now believe these batches could be a
reason for a massive rise in reported adverse reactions
to whooping cough vaccines between 1968 and 1971, which
included a number of deaths.
In1968 Margaret Best took her son Kenneth for his jab
in Cork in the Republic of Ireland. Within hours Kenneth
was screaming in agony and was later diagnosed as being
permanently brain-damaged with severe mental handicap.
In 1982 the Irish government offered the Best family
£10,000 compensation, but they refused and took
Wellcome to court in 1989. After a bitter court battle
the family won £2.7 million. The victory was based on
evidence Margaret found while sifting through thousands
of Wellcome documents.
She discovered that the vaccine used on her son,
batch 3741, had not passed a critical safety test and
that it was known to be 14 times more potent than normal
Immunology experts condemned Wellcome in court for
what one US scientist described as an 'extraordinary
event'. The batch would not have been released in
America, he told the court.
Making the award, Justice Liam Hamilton described
Wellcome as negligent and he savaged the quality control
procedures in its laboratories during that time.
But The Observer has discovered that thousands of
doses from batch 3741 and from the second toxic batch,
3732, were also used in Britain. Wellcome documents
reveal records of at least one death in the UK from the
Much of this new information has emerged in Ireland
where, following pressure from politicians and
campaigners, the Irish government has demanded answers
from Glaxo Wellcome, now known as GlaxoSmithKline.
Irish Ministers are so concerned that they last week
launched a search for the 296 individuals who are known
to have received jabs from batch 3741. Trade Minister
Denis Naughten told The Observer yesterday: 'There can
be nothing more disgraceful than children being left to
their suffering amidst a knowing silence from those who
have the power to apologise and to compensate.'
It has also been revealed that in the early 1970s
Wellcome withheld damaging information about highly
reactive batches of the vaccine from the Irish health
authorities. In one case a regional health board gave
Wellcome details of more than 80 cases of adverse
reactions in clinics in Dublin. Yet Wellcome failed to
pass this on to the authorities.
It has also been alleged that in the early 1970s
batches of cattle vaccines may have been sent to Ireland
by mistake and injected into babies. Naughten, who has
led the campaign in Ireland, said: 'We now know that
something was going very wrong with the quality control
process in its [Wellcome's] lab in the later 1960s and
early 1970s, but it has taken years for the drug company
to give us information. I am sure that all the blunders
that have happened in Ireland happened in the UK as
well, and I urge British Ministers and politicians to
call the company to account.'
Gordon Stewart, emeritus professor of public health
at Glasgow University, who was commissioned by Britain's
chief scientific officer to report on whooping cough
vaccine in 1984, has described the revelations as
'scandalous'. He said: 'It was well known that between
1968 and 1970 there was a big jump in the number of
adverse reactions from the vaccine, including numerous
deaths. It is possible that a toxic batch could have
been the cause.'
Stewart, whose report was never made public by then
Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke, said he knew that these
potentially 'unsafe' batches had been used on British
babies and told the Department of Health at the time. He
said: 'When I found out that the same vaccines used on
Kenneth Best were used on British children, I was
shocked. I immediately informed the Department of
Health, but they brushed off my concerns.'
Labour MP Ian Stewart, chair of the all-party Commons
committee on vaccine issues, wants the Department of
Health to launch an immediate inquiry and to trace
British children affected. Some families whose children
were the most badly brain-damaged can currently apply
for £100,000 in compensation from the Government.
Stewart said: 'If it can be shown that negligence on
behalf of Glaxo Wellcome led to a toxic batch of
vaccines being given to British babies, and that, as a
result, they suffered brain damage, then the question
arises whether it should be the state or the company
Like many parents at the time, Bridget Cowlin's
concerns were swept aside by health officials and many
in the medical profession.
A spokesman for Glaxo- SmithKline told The Observer :
'We do not accept that these batches were harmful.
Trivax was used in accepted vaccination schemes in
Ireland and tens of thousands of children would have
received vaccines from these batches. Whooping cough is
a very serious disease, which can cause permanent
disability, and even brain damage in a small number of
'Trivax was a very effective vaccine which prevented
the spread of whooping cough. As is the case with all
medicines, no vaccine is completely without adverse
effects. However, it is the common belief of the medical
authorities and profession that the risks of serious
disease from not vaccinating are far greater than the
risks of serious reaction to vaccination.'
But for parents still caring for their handicapped
children this is not enough. 'You'll never be a
grandparent, you'll never enjoy the normal things in
life. We are luckier than many in that our daughter is a
nice person to be with. She can speak and do some things
for herself,' said Bridget Cowlin. 'But when I think of
the pharmaceutical giants making millions while all our
children's lives lie in ruins, that makes me very angry.
That there is a possibility someone knew there were
toxic vaccines out there makes me even angrier.'