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Dr. Frances Kelsey, 100, asks why Ottawa waited so long to recognize victims’ needs.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Frances Kelsey, the Canadian doctor held up as a saviour for blocking the sale of thalidomide in the United States, says Parliament's recognition of the drug's victims in Canada is both welcome and overdue.

"What took them so long?" Dr. Kelsey, 100 years old, said about MPs' unanimous vote this week to extend "full support" to Canadian thalidomide victims, now almost all in their early 50s.

Dr. Kelsey has returned to the country of her birth after spending her working life in the U.S., most of it as a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington. She became one of her country's most respected civil servants by refusing to approve thalidomide despite the relentless pressures of the drug's manufacturer.

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The timing of her return to Canada is fortuitous: Dr. Kelsey, considered an exemplar in the way she protected the public's health in the thalidomide case, comes home just as her native country is making amends for its failure to do so.

Canada gave thalidomide its blessing in 1961 and unknown numbers of babies were born with severe deformities that included stunted limbs, notably flipper-like arms. Today, 95 of the drug's survivors are awaiting a compensation offer from Ottawa to cope with the growing toll their disabilities are taking on their health.

Dr. Kelsey, now living with her daughter and son-in-law in London, Ont., followed the news in Ottawa on Monday when the ruling Tories and opposition parties backed an NDP motion to give the victims support.

"It's excellent," she said from London. "I'm glad they [survivors] are getting something. It will be interesting how it works out, so that people that need it get help."

Dr. Kelsey was born on Vancouver Island and obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees from McGill University in Montreal. After getting her master's in pharmacology in 1935, she applied for a job with the Canadian government. It was the depths of the Depression and what few jobs there were went to men, she later recalled. Dr. Kelsey went on to get her PhD and medical degree at the University of Chicago and went to work at the FDA in 1960; the thalidomide file landed on her desk within about a month.

The group representing Canadian thalidomide victims said it was heartened to see Dr. Kelsey return to Canada at the very moment the country has taken steps to help survivors.

"It's as if all the stars are aligned," said Mercédes Benegbi, head of the Thalidomide Association of Canada. She said Canada should consider paying tribute to the centenarian. "It's an honour for Canada to have such a grande dame among us, returning to the country of her birth."

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With the Commons vote out of the way, the fundamentals of hammering out a deal have begun. Ms. Benegbi said her group has exchanged information with the federal health ministry this week and remains optimistic the two sides will reach a financial agreement. Her group is seeking a $250,000 lump sum payment for survivors plus a sliding scale of annual support ranging from $75,000 to $150,000.

"We are here to support discussions but the ball is in their court," Ms. Benegbi said of federal health officials. "We expect them to come back to us with a financial deal. We got a moral commitment – now it's a financial commitment."

The group says it expects an offer from Ottawa before Parliament resumes on Jan. 26.

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