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Thalidomide victims Peter Settle, left, and his identical twin brother Paul Settle, right, in Hamilton.

The Globe and Mail

Last weekend, The Globe and Mail launched a heart-breaking special series on Canada's 95 known survivors of thalidomide.

In the early sixties, their mothers took the supposed "miracle drug," which doctors began to prescribe for morning sickness after it received federal approval.

Today, they are in their fifties and live, in many cases, with constant suffering, their limbs gnarled and stunted.

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As writer Ingrid Peritz reported, the miracle drug was a "hidden time bomb that worked its devastation in the womb. Children entered the world with flipper-like hands coming out of their shoulders. Others were born deaf, without legs or with damage to their spines and hearts. Many more died, or were rejected by their parents." They were, as the headline on her story put it: "Forgotten, but not gone."

In September, the victims, who refer to themselves as "thalidomiders," submitted a report to the federal government describing their financial and physical hardships. They asked for ongoing aid, saying Ottawa's one-time payout two decades ago is long gone.

Read The Globe and Mail Special Report: After years of neglect, Canadian thalidomide survivors make a plea for help

But nothing happened. After waiting two months, the victims still had no indication that Health Minister Rona Ambrose had even seen their proposal.

Since last Saturday, however, all that has changed. The Globe followed its weekend package (on the front page, thalidomiders' struggle was summarized as "The fight of their lives") with an in-depth story on Monday about Dr. Frances Kelsey.

Now 100, she was the Canadian-born medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration who refused to approve thalidomide for use in the United States. Although under great pressure, she, in her words "stuck to her guns" and thus spared thousands.

Also on Monday there was a story about plans by the federal opposition parties to make a united call for fair compensation.

Then, on Tuesday, a Folio feature by renowned British-born journalist and author Sir Harold Evans noted some of the 52 countries that approved the drug have left victims basically unsupported. Of Canada, he said, those who remain have "miserable lives because their disabilities have aged their years" and because they've received so little help.

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He described as "excruciating" a video of a Canadian woman "who can take a bath only when there is someone around who can try to get her into a sling so she can be winched in and out of the water."

The same day, the main story on The Globe's front page quoted Ms. Ambrose saying she had not yet been briefed on the report sent to her office in September. "To be honest," she later said, "the spread in The Globe and Mail was my first sense of what was happening."

In his health column, André Picard also tackled the issue, writing that there is no excuse for failing to apologize or compensate the victims. "Thalidomiders have learned to live with … disabilities. What they cannot endure is more injustice: the poisonous silence in response to their pleas for help."

Suddenly, the tide turned. The lead story in Wednesday's paper was also about Ms. Ambrose, but this time she was reaching out, asking to meet the victims and promising to review the proposal.

Then came Thursday's front-page announcement of a positive outcome. In almost record time, the federal government had committed to support the survivors, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowing to move forward on the matter. "This is a terrible series of events that those of us who were raised in the 1960s remember very well," he said.

Journalists have long struggled to raise issues that are in the public interest and to draw attention to larger problems, from social inequality and public-health danger to government overspending and misappropriation.

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In this case, "for decades, the plight of those suffering has been shunted to the sidelines," says editor-in-chief David Walmsley. "Well, no more. The Globe is proud to help those in need, to guide government from a position of inaction to one that better reflects the duty of care."

Readers recognize how vital it is to shine a light on such issues. As one pointed out, "It took journalism to make the government sit up and listen. Buy a subscription to a newspaper – any paper – and keep journalism alive."

But journalism alone doesn't drive the public agenda; it needs help. Those who follow the news must make their feelings known, whether by commenting online, writing to the editor, or going directly to their elected officials.

It is why Mr. Walmsley acknowledges the public's "support of the journalism we have done," and promises to do "more of it."

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