Thalidomide apology insulting, campaigners say

Bronze statue symbolizing a child born without limbs because of thalidomide The bronze statue of a child born with thalidomide symptoms is on display in Stolberg, Germany

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The company which invented thalidomide has "insulted" those affected by the drug by issuing an "insincere" apology, campaigners have said.

The drug, sold in the 1950s as a cure for morning sickness, was linked to birth defects and withdrawn in 1961.

German-based Gruenenthal has issued its first apology in 50 years, but said the drug's possible side-effects "could not be detected" before it was marketed.

But the UK's Thalidomide Trust said any apology should also admit wrongdoing.

Nick Dobrik, a member of the trust's national advisory council, said it "should be an unreserved apology, not a conditional apology".

Within months of thalidomide first going on sale in Germany, doctors were writing to Gruenenthal asking about side effects that were appearing in their patients.

The company's stock response was to say it was not aware of side-effects and that these must be down to the individual patient.

The company muffled the alarm bells - its apology now is next to worthless. It changes nothing about the company being negligent in putting the drug on the market.

Gruenenthal also tried, and almost succeeded, in dragging the legal process past the German statute of limitations to escape responsibility.

Almost everything that Gruenenthal has done relating to thalidomide has been absolutely disgraceful.

"We feel that a sincere and genuine apology is one which actually admits wrongdoing. The company has not done that and has really insulted the thalidomiders."


Martin Johnson, the trust's director, told the BBC that the news that the manufacturers were starting to acknowledge responsibility was welcome but they were still trying to perpetuate the myth that no-one could have known of the harm the drug could cause when there was, he said, much evidence that they did know.

And Freddie Astbury, president of Thalidomide UK, said: "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."

By the time the drug was pulled from the market, more than 10,000 babies worldwide had been born with a range of disabilities caused by the drug.

This included shortened arms and legs, blindness, deafness, heart problems and brain damage.

There are between 5,000 and 6,000 sufferers still alive. Thalidomide UK says there are 458 people in the UK who were affected by the drug, but that for every thalidomide baby that lived there were 10 that died.

Harald Stock, Gruenenthal's chief executive, issued his company's 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," he said at a ceremony in the western German city of Stolberg, where the firm is based.

"We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us."

Thalidomide timeline

  • 1953: Drug created in Germany by the Gruenenthal Group
  • 1958: Thalidomide is first licensed for use in the UK
  • 1961: Australian doctor William McBride reports an increase in deformed babies being born at his hospital to mothers who had taken thalidomide
  • Drug is withdrawn later that year
  • 1968: UK manufacturers Distillers Biochemicals Limited (now Diageo) reaches compensation settlement following a legal battle by affected families
  • 2005: Diageo doubles its compensation payouts from £2.8m to about £6.5m a year
  • 2008: The drug is approved for the treatment of multiple myeloma - bone marrow cancer - by the European Medicines Agency
  • 2009: UK government agrees a £20m grant, to be paid to the Thalidomide Trust over three years
  • 2010: UK health minister Mike O'Brien makes a formal apology to thalidomide survivors on behalf of the government

Mr Stock said the company regretted that the potential for thalidomide to affect the development of foetuses "could not be detected by the tests that we and others carried out before it was marketed".

Class action

BBC science correspondent for the Today programme, Tom Feilden, said one of the main issues was what Gruenenthal knew about the drug's side effects, when it knew about them and whether the company could have acted sooner in withdrawing it from the market.

Some compensation has been paid, particularly by thalidomide's British distributor.

Gruenenthal itself has previously paid compensation to survivors of the drug, many in Germany, and has voiced regret over the issue - but has not admitted liability.

In the early 1970s, it agreed to pay 100m Deutschmarks (£40m) into an official fund for German thalidomide survivors and was given permanent legal indemnity by the German government.

Since the original fund money ran out, continuing compensation payments have been made by the government. In 2009 the company added a further 50m euro (£39.6m) one-off endowment.

Compensation claims are still outstanding, including one key class action in Australia, which saw thalidomide survivors win the right to have their case for compensation heard there.

The drug is still used today under strict controls to treat some bone marrow cancer patients.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    My heart goes out to the victims. But if we want new drugs and other things that improve our lives we - consumers - must bear the risk of events that cannot be foreseen. If that risk is placed on manufacturers they will be frightened to innovate, for fear of being sued out of business, and we will be the worse for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    "its not really their apology to make"

    EXACTLY. The victims will never get a real apology because the profiteers have been living in Monaco with their Martinis for 50 years.

    But the PR company has told this PharmaCo to send out an "apology". Drawing a line under a bad smell, and they can pump up the profits in the future. ££££

    Maybe they can put a smiley face next to their logo now ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    Women who abused LSD, PCP, and bath salts (potent THC) developed birth defects in their children. No one should take any drug unless it's established medicine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    I'm 51. My mother was offered the drug but declined. Ten years later my father dies after a 10 year battle against an inoperable brain tumor that due to scientific advances would now have been curable. We/he had no compensation or apology. Life took its course. Please everyone, don't clamor to always bash science. It does good most of the time. They did wrong by trying and failing, not intent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    My question is this: why, for what reason(s) has this company made this "apology" at this time? What is the purpose? A bit late, to say the least, but some will say "better late than never". However, there has to be a "reason".

    The reason, as usual, will most likely be a case of follow the money trail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    And you, presumably, imagine that there would have been no extra financial burden - as well as the emotional and physical draining of the people involved, and their families?
    This is one genuine claim for compensation - I would have thought anyone could see that.
    Hollow apologies - 50 years too late !
    They should do the right thing and help - albeit late in the day - those damaged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    I don't understand why people would be angry at Gruenenthal for making an apology. The employees of Gruenenthal were not responsible. Not a single one of them. This happened 50 years ago. All the current employees and mangers were not working there then. Its only the same company in name and its not really their apology to make. The current employees had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    When a corporate machine says sorry, is it anything more than another way to play the market ?

    Unfortunately what it indicates is the utter heartlessness of this mechanical world; where chemical pills are supposed to make you happy, and a recording on the phone tells you how valued you are.

    Reminds me of Blair apologising for something that happened 150 years ago !

    It's all quite ugly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    He should also apologise for taking so long to apologise. If the apologist & his company didn't know at the start this drug had issues then they certainly knew soon after. Not to know drugs had the horrible side affects that this one had before releasing them onto the market is to be blatantly irresponsible. Now that he has given an apology, he should concider his next step to pay compensation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Although I can appreciate the anger and frustration when it has taken so long for the company to issue an apology, sadly the response they are getting can only encourage other drug companies to stay silent forever..

    It might have been VASTLY more productive to accept the apology and work on the basis of "so now lets talk compensation" rather than just make them regret breaking their silence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    185 - if it can be of benefit what is wrong in giving it to men or post-menopausal women?

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    A 'heartfelt apology', but they won't discuss compensation for the victims? They're not THAT bloody sorry then, are they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    geoffrey bastin - i, too, take meds only when absolutely necessary and only after very careful consideration. but you minimize morning sickness. it can be quite devastating - could you handle vomiting several times a day for months?

    my mother took d.e.s. for the same reason, but i was lucky. give these people compensation to at least pay for their health care and loss of quality of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    "210. rideforever
    Science only puts bigger weapons in the hands of our troubled species.

    It is no saviour, and has no answer for the problem." / end Quote

    Utter Hogwash.

    Science is the exploration of our world/universe it is the application or miss-application that causes the problems

    The Computer you are using right now is due to Physic and Engineering BOTH are Sciences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    206. Trout Mask Replica
    I admit it I am simplistic, give me a figure.

  • Comment number 211.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    The Brightest Brains from the world's universities are sitting at their Department of Defence/ MI5 desks right now using all their genius to create bigger and nastier weapons. "How can we kill people more totally, more utterly, .. .how can we kill more and more and more".

    Science only puts bigger weapons in the hands of our troubled species.

    It is no saviour, and has no answer for the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Absolutely disgusting - had this been a British company there would have been hell to play. Having said that, this is on a par with the British govts (MOD) refusal to accept that British servicemen were damaged by Nuclear testing. They (MOD) like the thalidomide company are obviously waiting for everyone to die off!

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    I just lost my dear friend, Michael last month...he lived many years of his life institutionalized by his parents after having been born with disability from his mother's thalidomide use.

    He didn't live in a group home until recent years...needed care his entire life and finally died because of his disabilities.

    This company can never make up what was done to him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    @202 Galois
    Were people aware of the ability of thalidomide to convert 'in vivo' from one enantiomer to the other?


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