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Australian army infected troops and internees in second world war

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 08 May 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1233
  1. Georgina Kenyon
  1. Erskineville, Australia

    An investigation has found that the Australian army deliberately infected Australian troops and Italian and German internees with malaria and dengue fever at the end of the second world war as part of a drug trial. Many of the men and women who participated in the trials are now questioning the validity of the informed consent procedures and are complaining of subsequent health problems. They are also requesting war service pensions.

    As a result of the reports in the Australian media, in particular in The Age in Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald, the minister for veterans' affairs, Bruce Scott, has now called for the Repatriation Medical Authority to investigate the trials. The authority provides technical assessment to the department of veterans' affairs to evaluate whether there is sufficient evidence that a government project caused any long term health effects.

    The trials were revealed by two journalists last week after a review of army and government records. According to the journalists' findings, the malaria trial was designed to find an alternative to quinine, which had become unavailable after Japan invaded Java, where the drug was cultivated. About 850 trial participants were infected with malaria at the Australian Army's medical research base in Queensland. At the end of the war, a military hospital in Melbourne also became involved, testing the drug mepacrine, which is now used for treating giardiasis. Some of the participants included “Jewish refugees interned in Britain and sent to Australia on board the Dunera in 1940.”

    The dengue fever trial was designed to discover which type of mosquito transmitted the disease and to provide information about the development of immunity. “Various species of mosquitos which had fed on people suffering from dengue in New Guinea were transported to Sydney University, where the trials were carried out on an initial number of 15 volunteers,” reported the journalists. Convalescent hospitals in Sydney also took part in the study.

    It is not yet clear if those involved received medical treatment after being bitten by mosquitos in the first round of trials. The participants have complained that they had had fever, headaches, and backaches.

    A spokesperson for the federal department of veterans' affairs has emphasised that the experiments were publicised, explaining that an announcement had appeared in at least one issue of the Australian Women's Weekly in 1944. The international Jewish organisation, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has complained that the Australian Army used Jews as medical guinea pigs. The veterans' affairs department responded that fewer than 12 participants had been refugees or Jewish and that all who took part in the experiments were volunteers who had consented to the procedures. Although most trial participants acknowledge that they were volunteers, many doubt that they were well informed about all aspects of the experiments. The Repatriation Medical Authority is expected to conclude its inquiry in a few months.

    Embedded Image

    Soldiers infected with malaria parasites (above) claimed subsequent health problem

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