The thalidomide victims still seeking compensation

The ongoing legal battles against Grunenthal matter, both for those affected by thalidomide and because of the precedent they set.

Today 185 people in Spain who suffered birth deformities due to Thalidomide are suing the German company Grunenthal, which developed the drug. These individuals have never received compensation from Grunenthal and are now seeking more than £175m in damages.

Although in 2012 Grunenthal apologised for the drug, which was sold as a cure for morning sickness in expectant mothers and is believed to have led to 10,000 babies being born with birth defects worldwide, it has always maintained that it has “no legal responsibility to compensate individuals affected.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, new research has suggested that a larger number of people may have been affected by Thalidomide than previously believed, and these individuals now argue they should receive compensation. The UK distributors of Thalidomide, Distillers (now owned by the drinks firm Diageo) agreed to compensate victims in 1973, and the Thalidomide Trust was set up. The problem now is that although the Thalidomide Trust has helped over 500 people affected, scientists believe the number of people affected by thalidomide is much greater.

Thalidomide was withdrawn as a morning sickness drug in 1961, but babies born with related birth defects in the 1950s are experiencing new and continuing health problems as they get older. And it is truly shocking that over fifty years on, hundreds of victims have still never received any compensation for their life-changing conditions. Grunenthal has always maintained it is not liable because it met contemporary industry standards for drug testing. It has argued that in the 1950s no one tested the effect of drugs on foetuses, a claim that people like Harold Evans, who was associated with the thalidomide investigations while editor of the Sunday Times, hotly dispute.

How Grunenthal and Diageo now respond to new compensation claims is of vital importance, not just for those seeking damages, but also because of the precedent it sets for others. We cannot let drug companies off the hook when their industry tests aren’t rigorous enough, and we must accept the risk that we still don’t know, and cannot know, what the long-term affects are of some of the drugs we use today. And then who, if not the drug companies, should pay when the drugs make things worse?

Thalidomide victims hold AVITE (Association of Thalidomide Victims in Spain) flags after the first day of a trial involving the German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal, which produced the drug Thalidomide. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

The world shared a stunned silence when news broke that Boris Johnson would be the new Foreign Secretary. Johnson, who once referred to black people as “piccaninnies” and more recently accused the half-Kenyan President of the United States of only commenting on the EU referendum because of bitterness about colonialism, will now be Britain’s representative on the world stage.

His colourful career immediately came back to haunt him when US journalists accused him of “outright lies” and reminded him of the time he likened Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse”. Johnson’s previous appearances on the international stage include a speech in Beijing where he maintained that ping pong was actually the Victorian game of “whiff whaff”.

But Johnson has always been more than a blond buffoon, and this appointment is a shrewd one by May. His popularity in the country at large, apparently helped by getting stuck on a zip line and having numerous affairs, made him an obvious threat to David Cameron’s premiership. His decision to defect to the Leave campaign was widely credited with bringing it success. He canned his leadership campaign after Michael Gove launched his own bid, but the question of whether his chutzpah would beat May’s experience and gravity is still unknown.

In giving BoJo the Foreign Office, then, May hands him the photo opportunities he craves. Meanwhile, the man with real power in international affairs will be David Davis, who as Brexit minister has the far more daunting task of renegotiating Britain’s trade deals.