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.

New Statesman
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.

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Thalidomide was withdrawn as a morning sickness drug in 1961, but babies born with related birth defects in the 1950s are experiencing new and continuing health problems as they get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?