• Germany's news in English

Thalidomide victims protest 50 years on

The Local · 25 Nov 2011, 17:17

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

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

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?

Story continues below…

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)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

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
Deutsche Bank reports surprise quarter billion profit
Photo: DPA

Troubled German lender Deutsche Bank reported Thursday a surprise €256-million profit in the third quarter, compared with a loss of more than six billion in the same period last year.

US 'warned Merkel' against Chinese takeover of tech firm
Aixtron HQ. Photo: DPA

The German government withdrew its approval for a Chinese firm to purchase Aixtron, which makes semiconductor equipment, after the US secret services raised security concerns, a German media report said Wednesday.

Long-vanished German car brand joins electric race
Photo: DPA

Cars bearing the stamp of once-defunct manufacturer Borgward will once again roll off an assembly line in north Germany from 2018, the firm said Wednesday.

Eurowings cabin crew union to strike all day Thursday
Photo: DPA.

UPDATE: A union representing cabin crews on Lufthansa's budget airline Eurowings has announced that strikes will last all day Thursday as ongoing contract negotiations continue to falter.

Hesse hopes to set example by building Iraqi orphanages
Refugee children in northern Iraq. Photo: DPA

The wealthy central German state of Hesse has set aside €1 million to build a school, family homes and an orphanage in northern Iraq, in an effort to help refugees there.

The Local List
10 German clichés that foreigners get very wrong
David Hasselhoff. Photo: DPA

Whether it be efficiency, humourlessness or a love of a certain Baywatch star, there are many cliches stuck in the heads of foreigners about Germany. But how true are they?

Fake Germanwings victim relative convicted in Cologne
A torn piece of metal at the crash site in 2015. Photo: DPA

A German court on Wednesday gave a woman a year's suspended jail sentence for posing as the cousin of a victim in last year's Germanwings plane crash and obtaining compensation offered by the airline.

Couple accused of torturing, murdering women go on trial
The so-called 'house of horrors' in Höxter where the couple allegedly tortured and killed women. Photo: DPA.

A couple accused of luring women to their village home with personal ads started trial on Wednesday over charges that they tortured and killed at least two of their victims.

After July attacks, govt drafts new video surveillance law
Photo: DPA

The Interior Ministry is drafting a law which will enable public spaces to be filmed for surveillance purposes as a reaction to deadly attacks in July, according to a newspaper report.

Merkel: murky internet giants distort perception of reality
Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Tuesday for internet giants to make public their closely-guarded algorithms, claiming that they are not giving people diverse enough information.

10 ways German completely messes up your English
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Germany's 10 most weird and wonderful landmarks
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd