THE shadow of thalidomide is long.
Marketing of the antinausea drug to pregnant women in the 1950s and ’60s resulted in an estimated 10 000 babies around the world being born with birth defects and — it’s often claimed — eventually led to the more stringent regulation
of pharmaceuticals in place today.
Shockingly, though, survivors of the thalidomide catastrophe are, in some cases, still struggling to achieve compensation more than 50 years later, as Australian lawyer Michael Magazanik details in a new book.
“In dozens of the almost fifty countries where thalidomide was sold there has been no specific compensation scheme for thalidomiders”, he writes in Silent Shock
. “They have had to rely on their own endeavours, welfare or charity.”
Even where compensation was secured, it was “slow in coming and far from adequate”, he writes.
That was despite the companies involved having continued to market the drug to pregnant women for months after concerns about birth defects emerged.
Magazanik uncovered evidence of the cover-up as a member of the legal team representing Australian and New Zealand victims of the drug in a recent suit against the local distributors, Distillers. The plaintiffs in that case eventually received an $89 million settlement in late 2013.
He had earlier represented Lynette Rowe, a Melbourne woman born without limbs in 1962 after her mother had taken thalidomide during pregnancy.
Rowe received a multimillion dollar settlement (the full figure was not disclosed) in 2012 — not before time, as her ageing parents were struggling to continue providing the constant, physically demanding care their daughter required.
How, you might wonder, could compensation for people with such devastating injuries have taken so long to achieve?
The answer, according to Magazanik, lies in various strategies employed by the manufacturers and distributors of the drug in a bid to extinguish or reduce their liability.
From initial denial of any link to birth defects, the companies moved to damage control, putting pressure on families to accept small payouts rather than face protracted legal action and seeking to restrict the numbers eligible for compensation by casting doubt on individual cases.
As the years passed, it became ever harder for families to establish the link or even to prove that the mother of an affected child had indeed taken thalidomide decades earlier.
Although some companies, like the Australian distributor, have finally provided serious compensation to affected families, the original German manufacturer of the drug, Grünenthal, is still largely holding out, Magazanik writes, describing the company as “huddled behind its ramparts, defences bristling, clutching hard at its self-serving view of history”.
Perhaps it is hoping to outlast the victims of the drug it marketed so assiduously?
“All but a few [thalidomiders] are over fifty, with many closing in on sixty”, Magazanik writes. “In twenty years the number will have shrunk dramatically. When there are no more than one hundred survivors will Grünenthal roll out the red carpet and pay each of them a generous pension? … Or will even the last German thalidomider have to rely on the German state to provide a pension carrying a measure of dignity?”
It begs the question of whether it could it happen now? Let’s hope not.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.