Thalidomide manufacturer offers apology but no compensation

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 04 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e5930
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. 1London

Groups representing people affected by the drug thalidomide have condemned an apology made by the drug’s German manufacturer.

Harald Stock, chief executive of Grünenthal, has expressed his regret to the thousands of children born with missing or deformed limbs as a result of their mothers taking the morning sickness treatment in the 1950s and 1960s.

Stock, who was speaking at the unveiling of a memorial to people affected by the drug in Stolberg, Germany, said that the company had failed to reach out “person to person” and that “instead, we remained silent.” He added, “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock your fate caused in us.”

He continued: “The thalidomide tragedy took place 50 years ago in a world completely different from today. The international scientific community, the pharmaceutical industry, and governments, legislators, and administrations have had to learn a lot from it.”

Martin Johnson, director of the Thalidomide Trust, which provides support for UK people affected by the drug, said that the company was “trotting out the same excuse” that it had been making since 1962: that it was acting in accordance with the standards of the time.

“This was not an apology but an attempt to perpetuate the false exculpation they have been making for the last 50 years,” he said.

He added that he was puzzled by the timing of the apology but said that it might be linked to continuing legal action the company was facing.

Grünenthal has not offered any compensation to accompany the apology. Campaigners say that as people who have been affected by the drug are ageing their symptoms are worsening. Johnson said that research yet to be published showed that half of the 450 survivors in the United Kingdom have chronic pain, double the 25% 10 years ago, and that a quarter had neurological symptoms.

Thalidomide was marketed in the United Kingdom from 1958 but was withdrawn in 1961 after a letter in the Lancet showed the extent of birth defects.1 After a lengthy campaign the distributor of the drug in the UK, Distillers, gave compensation of £28m. And three years ago the UK government gave the 466 people affected by the drug £20m.2

Geoff Adams Spink, who had birth defects as a result of his mother taking the drug and is chairman of the European Dysmelia Reference Information Centre, cautiously welcomed Stock’s comments.

He said, “Having tried to remind them of their criminal behaviour across a negotiating table on several occasions, I didn’t think this company would ever make things right. This is an important first step. The next is to compensate everyone damaged by their so called ‘totally harmless’ drug.”

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.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e5930


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