The German manufacturer of the anti-morning sickness pill thalidomide — blamed for causing birth defects in thousands of babies — has issued its first ever apology, 50 years after pulling the drug off the market. But victims say an apology is not enough.
"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," said Harald Stock, chief executive of Grunenthal Group, on Friday. "We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us."
The drug was marketed for pregnant women as a sedative to mostly combat morning sickness, but it led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. Thalidomide was never approved for use in pregnant women in the U.S.
Grunenthal has said that it has paid roughly 500 million euros to victims by 2010.
Stock made a public apology on Friday, after unveiling a commemorative statue dedicated to Thalidomide victims in the western German city of Stolberg, where the company is based.
There are an estimated 10,000 Thalidomide victims in the world — many of whom have condemned the company’s silence.
- Background on Thalidomide
Canadian Thalidomide survivor Paul Murphy called the apology a "good joke" and an "insult."
"To apologize for something is one thing," Murphy said in an interview with CBC News on Saturday. "To accept responsibility to those who need it is another."
Murphy urged the manufacturer to "put the money towards those who need it."
Freddie Astbury, 52, of Liverpool, England, had a similar reaction, deeming the apology a “disgrace.”
"I'm gobsmacked" he said. "It's time to put their money where their mouth is. For me to drive costs about $80,000 for a car with all the adaptations. A lot of us depend on specialist care and that runs into the millions."
'It's just pathetic'
Australian Wendy Rowe took thalidomide while she was pregnant with her daughter, Lynnette, in the 1960s and her daughter was born without arms or legs.
Lynette Rowe reached a multimillion dollar settlement with the drug's British distributor in July, but Grunenthal refused to settle.
Lynnette appeared in a wheelchair alongside her parents in Melbourne after the company issued its apology on Friday.
"It's the sort of apology you give when you're not really sorry. It's also insulting," Wendy Rowe said.
"Shock is having your precious child born without arms and legs. It's accepting that your child is not going to have that life that you wanted for her," she said, sobbing as she described the impact the drug has had on her life.
Lawyer Michael Magazanik of the Australian law firm Slater & Gordon represents the Rowe family.
"In our view, it's not an apology. It's not even half an apology. In fact, it's just pathetic," Magazanik said.
Canada was one of the last countries to pull the drug off the shelves in 1962. A government task force found 115 Canadian children had been born with thalidomide-induced deformities.
In Canada, U.S.-based Richardson-Merrell Inc. distributed the drug, and families who were affected reached undisclosed individual settlements with that company. In 1990, the federal government extended assistance of $7.5 million to the Canadian-born "thalidomiders."
Thalidomide 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.
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Gruenenthal discovers and patents thalidomide. <i>An April 21, 1969 photo from files showing a view of a laboratory of the pharmaceutical company "Chemie Gruenenthal", in Stolberg, near Aachen, West Germany, during an animal experiment April 21, 1969 as prosecuters came to inspect the manufacturer of the drug Thalidomide, which was prescribed by doctors as harmless sleeping drug to pregnant women and caused the miscarriage and birth of thousands of crippled children.</i>
Thalidomide is first sold as Contergan in Germany. It is mainly prescribed to treat anxiety and morning sickness in pregnant women. <i>In a 1965 file photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health, a three-year-old girl, born without arms to a German mother who took the drug thalidomide, uses power-driven artificial arms fitted to her by Dr. Ernst Marquardt of the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
Gruenenthal is first warned by a gynecologist that using the drug leads to deformities in babies.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration demands a toxicity study for thalidomide to prove it is safe in humans. <i>John F. Kennedy, urges Congress to pass stronger legislation to prevent the distribution of Thalidomide, August 1, 1962.</i>
1960s - Thalidomide is marketed in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. The drug was never approved in the U.S. 1961 - Doctors in Germany, Australia and the U.K. notice a significant spike in the number of babies born with missing or shortened limbs. The birth defects are eventually linked to thalidomide and the drug is pulled from the market. <i>FThalidomide victim and campaigner Freddie Astbury at home in Liverpool, Britain.
German case launched by lawyers of families affected by thalidomide against Gruenenthal owner Hermann Wirtz and eight employees. <i>Dee Knott-Mtille holds 16-month-old Freddie Mtille, who she adopted after he was abandoned after being born with no arms or legs, before they set off home to Kenya from Heathrow Airport, Tuesday 6th September 2005.</i>
1970 - Gruenenthal offers to settle the case for 100 million Deutschmark. 1972 - Creation of foundation for German thalidomide victims. German state adds 100 million Deutschmarks to fund. In 2009, Gruenenthal adds a further (EURO)150 million; fund totals (EURO)150 million. <i>A bronze statue by artist Bonifatius Stirnberg is on display in Stolberg, Germany symbolizing a child born without limbs because of thalidomide Friday Aug, 31, 2012. The inscription on the statue called "the sick child" reads: In Remembrance of the Dead and Living of the Contergan ( Thalidomide) disaster.</i>
1998 - Thalidomide is approved by the FDA for treating a complication of leprosy. <i>The hands of a Madagascan woman named Mirana (which means 'joy' in Madagascan), are seen as she sits on January 29, 2011 in the main treatment center for leprosy in Tulear, in southwestern Madagascar.</i>
2006 - Thalidomide is approved for treating multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer. <i>U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron meets with 15-year-old terminal cancer sufferer Alice Pyne as MPs launch a recruitment drive to sign up more bone marrow donors, at 10 Downing Street July 13, 2011 in London.</i>
2012 - Australian thalidomide survivor wins multimillion settlement from British distributor, German maker Gruenenthal refuses to settle. <i>Thalidomide victim Lynette Rowe with her parents Ian and Wendy Thalidomide victim Lynette Rowe reaches settlement for 'several million dollars' from UK drug's distributor Diageo, Melbourne, Australia, 18 July 2012.</i>
Gruenenthal apologizes to mothers who took the drug and asks for forgiveness. <i>Maggie Woods, Chair of Irish Thalidomide Association, celebrates her 50th Birthday at a press conference at Buswells Hotel in Dublin.</i>