• Germany's news in English
 
Thalidomide victims protest 50 years on
Photo: DPA

Thalidomide victims protest 50 years on

Published: 25 Nov 2011 17:17 GMT+01:00

There will be a demonstration in the centre of the German capital and events organized by various thalidomide survivor associations in an effort to raise the awareness of one of the biggest medical scandals of the 20th century.

In 1957, German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal, based near Aachen, had high hopes as they launched their new “wonder drug” thalidomide, which could cure pain, act as a sleeping aid, and relieve nausea with supposedly few side effects. It was marketed in Germany under the brand name Contergan.

It was the anti-emetic qualities, however, that lead the drug to become popular with pregnant women suffering from morning sickness. Between 1957 and 1961, doctors around the world were prescribing liberal doses of thalidomide, unaware of the effects it would have on unborn children.

Speaking to the press on Thursday, Alfonso J. Fernandez Garcia from a thalidomide support group in the German state of Hesse held up an original packet of the drug with his deformed arms. “This little thing looks so harmless,” he said. “But we are still waiting for just compensation and an apology for the damage it has done.”

The inconspicuous tablets, advertised as being “as harmless as a boiled sweet” by family-run Grünenthal, caused serious internal and external deformities in over 10,000 children worldwide, including some 7,000 in West Germany.

By 1960 Grünenthal were receiving reports of not only deformities, still birth, and miscarriage, but also nerve damage in older recipients of the drug. Such complaints were met with fervent advertising, and according to research published by thalidomide associations in Hamburg, Hesse and Berlin-Brandenburg, a widespread effort to hush doctors and the press.

It was only when the extent of the damage caused by thalidomide was exposed in German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, that Grünenthal withdrew production of the drug on November 26, 1961. Just one day after the article’s release.

“To me, the fact that a day after the Welt am Sonntag article the drug was taken off the shelves, signals both a scandal and a catastrophe,” said Fernandez Garcia.

In the four years that the drug was in circulation, the damage was immense. Around 4,000 babies died either at birth or during infancy, and those who lived were often disabled for life.

Doctors were confused and horrified by the wave of children with small misshapen arms, legs, and damaged internal organs that were being born to healthy parents. They predicted a short lifespan for thalidomide victims and at that point, few thought a child affected by the drug would live to middle age.

Surviving thalidomide

Nevertheless, 50 years on and there are 2,800 victims still alive in Germany. Many have suffered lifelong pain, both physically through nerve damage, as well as mentally through distress from social stigma and employment difficulties.

“We’re living the second (thalidomide) tragedy; our survival” Fernandez Garcia said. “We are alive, but what is ‘life’ for us?”

Faced with mounting medical bills, life as a victim of Grünenthal’s “wonder drug” can be grim. Many are too disabled to work, or struggle to find a job at all.

Currently, victims receive monthly payments from the state thalidomide foundation ranging from €250 to €1,127 depending on the level of disability. Since 2009, an annual supplement of up to €3,680 has also been available. However, various thalidomide advocates estimate the total cost of damages to be around €8 billion.

Grünenthal has made two main donations to the fund since it’s founding - 114 million Deutsche marks in 1972, then €50 million in 2009. The company’s annual turnover is around €800 million.

“We are not just fighting for us; we’re fighting for our parents, many of whom are still alive and living with an enormous, permanent guilt. And all because of one single pill,” said spokesman for the Hamburg thalidomide association Gernot Stracke. Both he and his sister were disfigured by Thalidomide.

Grünenthal spokesman Frank Schönrock told The Local the company was “infinitely sorry” for the suffering it had caused.

“Through meeting with those affected, we are aware of their difficult situation,” he said. “We can, therefore, fully understand why thalidomide victims want to raise awareness about it.”

Appropriate support?

Schönrock said Grünenthal planned to offer continued support for the foundation.

“We have set up an initiative that offers the quick and unbureaucratic help that can’t always be offered by social services - for instance modifying a bath tub to make washing easier,” he said.

However, many thalidomide victims across Germany believe that the current financial support offered is not enough.

“It’s difficult to say what would be an appropriate amount of compensation,” said Dr. Carla Wesselmann, representative for the Berlin-Brandenburg thalidomide association. “One million (euros) per victim is a lot, but it would be along the right lines.”

“Grünenthal became a (big) company through the sale of thalidomide,” Wesselmann said. “In developing the drug, they incurred the responsibility for its damage.”

The demonstration for thalidomide victims in Berlin on Saturday will begin on Pariser Platz, near the Brandenburg Gate at noon.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

04:30 November 27, 2011 by DOZ
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
10:24 November 28, 2011 by nolibs
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms. --- Just beating you to the punch Mr. Censor.
11:03 November 28, 2011 by davieskb
I am disabled by Thalidomide. I was born in the UK in September 1962, it was withdrawn before my Mother was pregnant yet it was prescribed by her doctor.

It is truly scanalous that Grunenthal have persistently been allowed by successive German goverments to get away with paying so little.

Johnson & Johnson, a leading company in this area, have a credo which says: ¦quot;Research must be carried on, innovative programs developed and mistakes paid for.¦quot; So the industry thinks mistakes should be paid for.

German Thalidomiders are paid too little to live on today. Many cannot work and there are significant costs over and above usual living costs. Further, they are prevented from taking Grunenthal to court in Germany under threat of losing this little compensation they do get.

Grunenthal has an opportunity to do the right thing now, but they are now prevaricating ­ In short while I wish I could scratch my own buttocks, I wish Grunenthal would stop scratching theirs.
Today's headlines
British and German troops relive Xmas truce
Soldiers in World War One period uniforms watch the football match. Photo: DPA

British and German troops relive Xmas truce

Teams from the British and German armies played a friendly football game in Aldershot on Wednesday in memory of the Christmas truce of 1914. READ  

American guilty of killing Hamburg student
Diren Dede's grieving parents outside the court in Missoula Photo: DPA

American guilty of killing Hamburg student

A US court has found a man who shot and killed 17-year old German exchange student Diren Dede guilty of deliberate homicide. READ  

Cabinet agrees road toll for foreigners from 2016
Photo: DPA

Cabinet agrees road toll for foreigners from 2016

After months of bickering among the coalition parties, the cabinet finally agreed to put a road toll for foreigners before parliament, but open questions about its financial viability and legality remain. READ  

Over half of Christmas trees carry pesticides
Ordinary people might soon be copying this contestant in last January's Christmas tree-throwing contest in Swabia. Photo: DPA

Over half of Christmas trees carry pesticides

Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) said that it found poisonous chemicals in more than half of German Christmas trees it had tested. READ  

'Breakthrough' in train strike: union
Stranded passengers during the train strike Photo: DPA

'Breakthrough' in train strike: union

The head of the train drivers union GDL claimed a "breakthrough" late Wednesday in talks with Deutsche Bahn, which may herald the end of a spate of train strikes which have caused travelling misery and cost the rail operator around 100 million euros. READ  

Opinion
What does Dresden have against Muslims?
The baroque skyline of Dresden Photo: DPA

What does Dresden have against Muslims?

The Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) was unknown three months ago. Now it's making Dresden famous - for all the wrong reasons. READ  

Amazon strike extended to Saturday
Workers at the Amazon distribution centre in Leipzig. Photo: DPA

Amazon strike extended to Saturday

Union Verdi announced on Wednesday that its members at two Amazon distribution centres would extend a planned three-day strike through the rest of the week, while four more sites saw new walkouts. READ  

Russia in clear over death of German MP
The late German parliamentarian Andreas Schockenhoff Photo: DPA

Russia in clear over death of German MP

A post-mortem on a prominent German MP and critic of Vladimir Putin showed no signs of foul play, prosecutors said Wednesday. READ  

'Tear Down This Plaque' row over GDR sign
Former East German leader and "comrade" Erich Honecker Photo: DPA

'Tear Down This Plaque' row over GDR sign

A historic Berlin museum is facing calls to pull down a plaque commemorating the former East German communist leader Erich Honecker. READ  

'Reform business inheritance tax' court tells MPs
Presiding judge Ferdinand Kirchhof announcing the decision on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

'Reform business inheritance tax' court tells MPs

Judges at the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe said on Wednesday that the government must change rules reducing tax on inherited family-owned businesses within 18 months. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Germany's national football team lifts the World Cup trophy
Gallery
Germany's most-Googled words of 2014
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Photo: DPA
National
This German was abducted and tortured by the CIA
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Sponsored Article
Top ten gifts for an expat Christmas
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Culture
Stuff your face with these festive German cookies
Photo: DPA
Culture
What do beer, breakfast cereal and dildos have in common?
Culture
The Local's guide to German Christmas markets
Sponsored Article
Top five quirky Christmas jumpers
Photo: DPA
Culture
Get ready for Christmas like a German. We tell you how.
Photo: DPA
Munich
She did what with her dead mother?
Photo: DPA
National
Germany still paying for crisis fall out
Photo: DPA
Culture
Saxon wurst is the worst, Christmas market declares.
Photo: DPA
Politics
Can 'sorry' ever be enough for the Linke?
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
Photo: DPA
Berlin
The Local's series on 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
Shutterstock
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles through December 19th
Photo: DPA
Gallery
See how Berlin has changed in 22 photos
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,167
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd