The manufacturer of thalidomide, a notorious drug that caused thousands of babies to be born with shortened arms and legs, or no limbs at all, has apologised for the first time – 50 years after pulling the drug off the market.
Gruenenthal Group’s chief executive said the company wanted to apologise to mothers who took the drug during the 1950s and 1960s and to their children who suffered congenital birth defects as a result.
“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 said on Friday. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”
Stock spoke in the western German city of Stolberg, where the company is based, during the unveiling of a bronze statue symbolising a child born without limbs because of thalidomide. The statue is called “the sick child” – a name German victims group object to since all the victims are now adults. In German, the name also implies cure.
The drug, a powerful sedative, was given to pregnant women mostly to combat morning sickness, but led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. Thalidomide was yanked from the market in 1961 and was also found to cause defects in the eyes, ears, heart, genitals and internal organs of developing babies.
Freddie Astbury, of Liverpool, England, was born without arms or legs after his mother took thalidomide. The 52-year-old said the apology was years long overdue.
“It’s a disgrace that it’s taken them 50 years to apologise,” said Astbury, of the Thalidomide UK agency, an advocacy group for survivors. “I’m gobsmacked (astounded),” he said. “For years, (Gruenenthal) have insisted they never did anything wrong and refused to talk to us.”
Astbury said the drug maker should apologise not just to the people affected, but to their families. He also said the company should offer compensation. “It’s time to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.
In July, an Australian woman born without arms and legs after her mother took thalidomide reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the drug’s British distributor. Gruenenthal refused to settle.
The lawsuit was part of a class action and more than 100 other survivors expect to have their claims heard in the next year. Thalidomide is still sold today, but as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer and leprosy. It is also being studied to see if it might be useful for other conditions including AIDS, arthritis and other cancers.