Five Decades After Thalidomide Birth Defect Debacle, German Drug Maker Apologizes

For the first time in more than five decades, the German maker of thalidomide has apologized for the misery caused by the once-popular morning sickness remedy.  According to a report from the Associated Press, the CEO of Gruenenthal Group issued the apology last week to mothers who took thalidomide in the 1950s and 1960s, and later gave birth to children with horrible birth defects.

Thalidomide was taken off the market in 1961 after it was linked to birth defects, mostly limb defects, including children born with missing limbs.    Thalidomide has since been found to cause defects in the eyes, ears, heart, genitals and internal organs of developing babies.  It has been estimated that some 10,000 babies were ultimately born with birth defects due to their mothers’ use of thalidomide.

Though it widely used in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan, thalidomide was never approved for use in pregnant women in the U.S.  However, a U.S. lawsuit has been filed against GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Avantor Performance Materials and Gruenenthal, with several plaintiffs claiming their birth defects resulted from their mothers’ use of thalidomide, according to a report from Reuters.

Gruenenthal’s apology came on Friday in the German city of Stolberg, during a ceremony to unveil a memorial to the victims of thalidomide, according to the Associated Press.

“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,” Harald Stock, CEO of Gruenenthal said. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”

This is the first time the company has issued any sort of apology since pulling thalidomide off the market more than 50 years ago, a fact that did not go unnoticed by victims of the drug.

“It’s a disgrace that it’s taken them 50 years to apologize,” Freddie Astbury, of the Thalidomide U.K. agency, an advocacy group for survivors, told the Associated Press. “I’m gobsmacked (astounded),” he said. “For years, (Gruenenthal) have insisted they never did anything wrong and refused to talk to us.”

Astbury, who was born without legs due to his mother’s use of thalidomide, called on the drug maker to go further, and provide compensation to people injured by thalidomide.  While the U.K. distributor of thalidomide has compensated victims there, Gruenenthal has never offered restitution to thalidomide victims.

“We invite them to sit around the table with us to see how far their apology will go,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve ever realized the impact they’ve had on peoples’ lives.”

According to the Associated Press, Gruenenthal did settle a German lawsuit to compensate 3,000 victims in that country more than a decade after thalidomide was withdrawn.  But the company has always insisted it bore no liability for thalidomide birth defects, saying it had conducted all necessary clinical trial required at the time.  Stock appeared to hold to that position on Friday, maintaining that the thalidomide debacle occurred in a “world that is completely different from today.”

Just this past July, a thalidomide distributor reached a multimillion dollar settlement with an Australian victim of the drug, but Gruenenthal refused to settle the case.  That lawsuit and 100 other claims are expected to be heard in Australia next year, the Associated Press said.

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