On Friday, Harald Stock, CEO of Gruenenthal Group, unveiled a haunting statue that memorializes the victims of thalidomide. He also used the occasion to say, for the first time, that the company was sorry for the drug’s legacy.
To refresh memories: Thalidomide was a drug marketed to pregnant women in the late 1950s and early 1960s for treatment of morning sickness and anxiety. As a result, some 10,000 babies – principally in Germany, Great Britain, Canada, Japan and Australia – were born with limb deformities, and countless women suffered miscarriages.
“I want to take this opportunity to express our deep regret over the consequences of [thalidomide] and our deep sympathy for the victims, their mothers and families,” Mr. Stock said at the ceremony in Stolberg, Germany, where the company is based.
“We also ask for forgiveness for not reaching out to you from human being to human being for almost 50 years ... We ask that you see our long speechlessness as a sign of the silent shock that your fate has caused us.”
Understandably, the apology infuriated thalidomide survivors. After all, it comes half a century too late, and it didn’t exactly come across as heartfelt.
The “silent shock” argument is, at best, disingenuous. Gruenenthal hasn’t been too shocked to spend 50 years fighting legal claims, though it should be noted it has paid out an estimated €500-million (about $620-million) in compensation, most of it in out-of-court settlements.
The unexpected statement, however, does present a good occasion to mull over the legacy of thalidomide in Canada.
The blunt truth is that the behaviour of the Canadian government on this file is no better than Gruenenthal. In many ways, our response has been more appalling.
Canada has a lot to be sorry for, and ashamed of.
Thalidomide was first distributed in Canada in 1959, two years before the drug was approved. It was hailed as a miracle drug with no side effects. Free samples and perks were given to doctors who prescribed it to their patients. The drug was approved for sale in April, 1961, without adequate testing or review.
Of course, we cannot judge the approval process on today’s standards, but consider that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration never approved thalidomide. Frances Kelsey, a Canadian working at the FDA, resisted tremendous pressure from the drug manufacturer and physicians who wanted access to the drug, because she recognized that safety data were nonexistent.
Canadians were among the first victims of thalidomide. At least 15 wives of Canadian soldiers posted in Germany gave birth to children with severe limb deformities between 1959 and 1961, before the drug came to Canada. That information was hushed up because, at the time, spouses were not allowed to accompany their soldier-husbands; they were there surreptitiously. Worse yet, those babies were left behind in German orphanages after families were told they could not be helped in Canada, and having a disabled child would hamper soldiers’ careers.
There were concerns expressed in Germany and elsewhere about babies being born with flipper-like limbs. But it was dismissed as a statistical blip; remember that birth defects like spina bifida and encephalopathy – which have almost disappeared thanks to folic-acid supplementation – were still commonplace then. So was hiding away those with disabilities, physical and mental. Worse yet, the 1950s were a time of technological wonder, and the medical and pharmaceutical establishment was confident, cocky even. The thought of a “miracle drug” causing harm was dismissed out of hand.
It was not until an Australian pediatrician, William McBride, published a letter in The Lancet pointing out the link to thalidomide that the world took notice. Within weeks, the drug was withdrawn in most countries.
But not Canada: It would take three more long months before thalidomide distribution was halted by Health Canada, and the drug remained available in some pharmacies for several more months.
There were 115 known victims of thalidomide in Canada, but you wouldn’t know it from the official silence.
There were some positives that came out of the scandal, namely a revamped drug approval system and, eventually, a crackdown on samples of unapproved drugs going to doctors. The significant number of thalidomide babies also led to the creation of several pediatric rehabilitation centres.
For the most part, families were left to fend for themselves. Almost all sued and they got paltry settlements – about $100,000 on average.
But as people with thalidomide grew into adulthood, they became more organized and vocal. On the 25th anniversary of the drug’s withdrawal, there were many retrospective pieces, where the full scope of the horror was finally clear.
The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, with the help of the War Amps, lobbied for government compensation, spurred on by payments made to victims of an even bigger public health debacle, tainted blood.
On Valentine’s Day 1990, the federal government created a $7.5-million fund, allowing for payments of $75,000 to $100,000 for survivors. It was a token amount, and a token gesture.
To this day, Canada has never apologized to the victims of thalidomide and their families, nor has it compensated them adequately.
That is as shameful as it is indefensible.
It is time to shatter 50 years of festering silence.
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