By Geoffrey Lee Martin in Sydney (8/99)

HUNDREDS of children in orphanages and care homes in the Australian state of Victoria were used as guinea pigs in secret medical experiments for 25 years up to 1970, it was disclosed yesterday.

The experiments, some on babies three months old, included trials of new vaccines for herpes, whooping cough and influenza. The largest test was of 350 infants up to three years old injected with full adult doses of trial influenza vaccines. The trials were designed to test for toxic reactions even though medical researchers knew the vaccines often produced more severe reactions in children than in adults.

Some of the vaccines used on children had failed safety tests on animals, said the newspaper The Age. In some cases the children developed serious reactions, including abscesses and vomiting. Jeff Kennett, the Premier of Victoria, last night ordered an immediate inquiry into the disclosures.

Most of the tests were carried out by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. It is not clear who gave permission to use the children for the experiments. The CSL refused to comment yesterday, saying it was now an independent public company but was then government-owned. Other experiments were done by the prestigious Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a private medical organisation which confirmed that it knew of research for a herpes vaccine using 16 babies from a local home, in which it had been involved.

Dr David Vaux, a spokesman for the institute, said on radio yesterday that the doctors who conducted the tests "should be seen as heroes saving lives" rather than as using children as guinea pigs.

He said the institute confirmed tests at St Joseph's Foundling Hospital, where meningitis killed up to 30 children in 1970. Vaccines, he said, were tested on animals to see whether there were any toxic effects and if there were not they were then tested on humans.

"At the time there were all sorts of infectious epidemics going through children, especially where children were crowded together," Dr Vaux said. "These included epidemics of lethal meningitis and poliomyelitis that caused death and paralysis . . . so people were desperate to try to prevent these diseases spreading and killing children.

"They were given to healthy children to try to prevent them getting the disease, which was before penicillin . . . to stop them from acting as carriers. In this way many children's lives were saved."

A group called Innovate, which acts as a voice for former wards of the state, has called for an inquiry, while the Australian Democrats party, which holds a key balance of power in the Federal Senate, has demanded a royal commission. "The federal government has a clear responsibility to launch an investigation into exactly what went on," said Meg Lees, the Democrats' spokesman on health.

She said any royal commission should also look at CSL's human pituitary hormone programme, where 2,500 people were given hormones from dead people between 1967 and 1985 to treat infertility and short stature."

Michael Wooldridge, the Federal Health Minister, said: "It shouldn't have happened then, it couldn't happen now." He would not comment on the possibility of a federal inquiry.