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Thalidomide Victims: After 50-Year Silence, Manufacturer's Apology Is Not Enough

Breaking a 50-year silence, the German manufacturer of the drug Thalidomide has apologized. Thalidomide, which was prescribed to help pregnant women with morning sickness in the 1950s and 1960s, caused series birth defects including shortened or “flipper-like” arms and legs, or babies being born without limbs at all. Other side effects included blindness, deafness, heart problems, and brain damage.

By the time the drug was pulled off the market in 1961, more than 10,000 so-called “Thalidomide babies” had been born around the world with birth defects caused by the drug, says the BBC. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 sufferers are still alive.

In 1962, FDA pharmacologist Frances Oldham Kelsey received the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President John F. Kennedy for blocking sale of thalidomide in the United States.

Thalidomide was never approved for use in the United States, although some samples were distributed on an experimental basis. Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is credited with blocking the drug from being approved in the United States. (Interesting side note: Dr. Kelsey would never have even gotten the job if her name hadn’t sounded like a man’s, the New York Times reported. She was hired for her first job, sight unseen, because a transcript had mistakenly listed her as “Francis.”)

Thalidomide was sold as Contergan in Germany, and elsewhere as Distaval and many other names. When it was distributed for experimental use in the U.S., it was called Kevadon.

Fifty years after taking their product off the market, German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal has apologized to victims, and asked for forgiveness. Surviving Thalidomide victims, now adults, are not impressed.

Gruenenthal’s chief executive, Harald Stock, issued the formal apology at the unveiling of a bronze statue symbolising a child born without limbs because of thalidomide.

“We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being,” Mr. Stock said at a ceremony in the western German city of Stolberg.

“We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us. We wish that the thalidomide tragedy had never happened. We see both the physical hardship and the emotional stress that the affected, their families and particularly their mothers, had to suffer because of thalidomide and still have to endure day by day.”

The nonprofit organization Thalidomide UK says there are 458 survivors in the United Kingdom.

Freddie Astbury, Thalidomide UK’s president, said to the BBC: “It’s taken a long time for them to apologise. There are a lot of people damaged by thalidomide struggling with health problems in the UK and around the world. So we welcome the apology, but how far do they want to go? It’s no good apologising if they won’t open discussions on compensation. They’ve got to seriously consider financial compensation for these people.

“We just want people to live a comfortable life and that means Gruenenthal have to pay for their mistake financially.”

The BBC notes that some compensation has been paid, particularly by thalidomide’s British distributor. Gruenenthal itself has paid compensation to some victims of the drug, many in Germany, and has voiced regret over the issue – but has not admitted liability. Many compensation claims are still outstanding, including one key class action suit in Australia.

Many saw the statement, and the unveiling of the bronze statue, which depicts a child with shortened arms, a PR stunt.

“The fact that Gruenenthal, a billion-euro company, is paying 5,000 euros (for the statue) is a slap in the face of every victim,” the federal association of Contergan victims told Reuters. “This PR measure is supposed to signal to the public that the company still has Contergan on its agenda, without any serious effort to address the concerns of the people who have been permanently damaged.”

(Photo Credits: iStockphoto, Wikimedia Commons)

Read more from Joslyn at Babble Pets and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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