Thalidomide Maker Apologized after 50 Years

The German manufacturer of thalidomide, a drug used in the 1950s and 1960s for morning sickness in pregnant women, issued its first apology Friday, 50 years after yanking the drug off the market.

Thalidomide is a powerful sedative, sold under the brand name Contergan. It was given to pregnant women mostly to help fight morning sickness, but led to birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan.

Thalidomide caused thousands of babies to be born with shortened arms and legs or no limbs at all. It was also found to cause defects in the eyes, ears, heart, genitals and internal organs of developing babies. It was taken off the market in 1961.

This drug is still used today, but as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer and for leprosy. It is also being studied to see if it might be useful for other conditions including arthritis, AIDS and other cancers.

Gruenthal Group’s chief executive said that the company wanted to apologize to mothers who took thalidomide 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,” Harold Stock said.

According to an English translation of his Stocks’ remarks that appeared on Grünenthal’s website, he added, “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.” As for the company’s delay in its expressions of regret for marketing the drug to a direct apology to the victims, he said that in recent discussions with victims and their families, “we learned how much it is publicly desired that we express our deep regrets to those affected by thalidomide.”

Although there are some American victims of thalidomide, this drug was never approved for use by pregnant women in the United States. One victim, a 51-year-old associate professor of art described himself in a telephone interview as one of the 26 known American thalidomide victims. He said he had been born with severe disabilities in both hands and one arm, and described his life as a “long and isolated journey.”

Now, he said, Grünenthal, shaken from a half century of denial by a class-action lawsuit in Australia, had made “some kind of statement that they are emotionally connected to our suffering. They’ve had 50 years to make billions of dollars while we struggled and our parents committed suicide. And now, they’re apologizing for not saying anything. How dare they do that and think it’s going to be enough?”

Mr. Stock claims that the company carried out all the tests available on thalidomide before it was marketed, given the scientific knowledge available in the 1950s.

For many decades, victims have campaigned for generous compensation for the harm caused by thalidomide, causing increased anger and hurt as more time went by. It is possible that the Australian class action lawsuit can result in new compensation awards for thalidomide victims running into tens of millions of dollars.

The manufacturer has insulted all the people who were affected by their drug by issuing a long over-due apology. These people did not ask to be born this way. It is safe to say that most pregnant mothers would rather have a little morning sickness than risk giving birth to a baby with defects such as these.

For more information, contact a Gacovino & Lake attorney at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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