German authorities tested drugs on unwitting children in state-run homes | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.10.2016
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German authorities tested drugs on unwitting children in state-run homes

In post-war Germany, authorities tested medications on youths in state homes. They even published their results and the methods they used in medical journals. The unwitting patients are still suffering the consequences.

For decades, authorities used children in youth psychiatry wards and children's homes as guinea pigs in drug tests. Between 1950 and 1975 hundreds, if not thousands, of minors were forced to take medicine and subjected to painful procedures like spinal taps without their consent. The kids weren't told what was being done to them and their parents or guardians weren't asked for permission.

Pharmacologist Sylvia Wagner was shocked when she found out the extent of the drug testing that went on in German children's homes. She started researching the issue for her PhD thesis. Several of her friends had been in these facilities as children and told her they remembered having to take drugs without knowing what they were.

One of the most baffling facts: Wagner didn't have to dig very deep at all to find proof for the abuse. Several of the studies were published in medical journals at the time, refering freely to the fact that the drugs in question were tested on children.

"These people apparently didn't even realize that what they were doing was wrong," Wagner told DW. "Otherwise they wouldn't have published their results like that."

Sent to the psych ward for sexual desire

Symbolbild Kindesmissbrauch (Fotolia/pegbes)

The children in psych wards and children's homes had no way of getting out of the medical tests that were forced on them

Children's homes were common in Germany in the post-war era. They weren't just for orphans, but also for children whose parents didn't have the time or the money to take care of them. Frequently, young people were also sent to the homes because they were perceived as difficult. In prudish post-war Germany, acting on your sexual desires as a teen, or having a relationship that your parents didn't approve of, could also send you to one of the homes, or even to a psychiatric ward.

There have been many reports of mistreatment, violence or even sexual abuse in the facilities. The drug tests are the newest horror on this list.

Among the homes that used children as unwitting test objects is also a home in the western German town of Viersen. The "Landschaftsverband Rheinland," (LVR) is the state authority that ran the home and other facilities like it. A spokeswoman said that everyone in the LVR administration agrees that "the people who used to be in these homes as children deserve justice."

The LVR has previously dealt with their homes' past and passed a resolution officially recognizing the ordeal that youths went through under the state's care.

"Our local politicians voice their 'deepest regret' in the resolution," an LVR statement reads. "They apologize to all who lived in these homes and suffered physical and mental humiliation."

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Psych drugs for sedation

So far, Wagner has uncovered roughly 50 well-documented test cycles. One of them was even ordered by the Federal Health Ministry at the time: more than 50 children at a Düsseldorf home were injected with an untested pox vaccine that eventually caused damage to their bone marrow. Among the doctors and personnel in charge were several former high-ranking Nazi officials.

Other drugs that were tested included medications that were thought to inhibit the sex drive and neuroleptics that were generally prescribed for psychotic behavior. But the illnesses that these drugs help fight, like schizophrenia, hardly occur in young children, Wagner said. She believes that in these cases, the goal was to test the drugs' tranquilizing capacity; in other words, how well they worked to sedate the person.

No one was outraged

Heidi Dettinger, the chairwoman of the "Association of People who used to be in children's homes" (VEHeV), said that it wasn't so much the fact that children were used as guinea pigs that surprised her.

"Almost all our members said they had to take drugs without any explanation what they were for," Dettinger told DW. "But we were shocked and saddened to learn how well documented these drug tests were and that no one back then was outraged by them."

Josef Mengele (picture alliance/Everett Collection)

Infamous Nazi physician Josef Mengele experimented on inmates of the Auschwitz concentration camp

Wagner, too, said she didn't expect to find results by simply going through medical journals of the time. 

"As far as I could see, there were no reactions in the 50s and 60s," she said. "I was definitely surprised that human testing still continued like this after 1945. After all, Nazi doctors were convicted for this in the Nuremberg trials."

Grave long-term consequences

For exactly this reason - to prevent anything like the crimes of the Nazi regime ever occurring again - guidelines were introduced that made it clear that drugs could only be tested on humans if the person in question explicitly agreed to it.

For children, rules are even stricter. They can only participate in tests, like medical trials for example, if the benefit they personally get from the test outweighs the risks, Wagner explains.

The children in the institutions of post-war Germany never agreed to swallowing pills or being prodded with needles. And today, as adults, they suffer the consequences. Wagner says that some of the drugs administered to the youths led to long-term effects, like diabetes and an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. That's in addition to the fact that the medications, in some instances, impaired the unwitting patients' brain development.

Said Dettinger: "The pharmaceutical industry needs to pay compensation to those who suffered."

A simple "sorry" is not enough to make up for this.

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