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The long struggle for compensation

Following the German lead, birth defect victims in Spain want compensation for their long suffering from the side effects of thalidomide, a sedative for pregnant women made by the German company, Grünenthal.

In the mid-1950s, the drug, thalidomide, was patented by the West German Grünenthal pharmaceutical company. The sedative was marketed under several names, including Contergan in Germany, and was originally sold as a remedy for morning sickness, tension and menstrual pains all over the world. It was trumpeted as a safe alternative to barbiturates until it came to light that there was a connection between the drug and thousands of babies born with disabilities.

In Germany, drugs containing thalidomide were withdrawn from the market in November 1961, after a conspicuous increase in the number of miscarriages and new-borns with deformities. But in Spain, which was under a fascist dictatorship at the time, the drug was still sold long after that.

Spanish health authorities only took thalidomide products off the market between October 1962 and January 1963, but there was no public awareness campaign about the drug's side effects. Thalidomide was still available for purchase in Spain under names like “Softenon” until at least 1965.

It is estimated that more than 3,000 people suffered thalidomide-related disabilities in Spain. While many of them died at a young age, today there are about 300 Spanish thalidomide survivors, who were born with severe defects after their mothers took the drug while pregnant.

The fight for compensation

Avite, the Spanish association for thalidomide victims, represents these survivors and filed a lawsuit against drugmaker, Grünenthal, seeking compensation totaling 204 million euros ($276 million) for its roughly 180 members.

Thalidomide victims taking a swimming class in Germany Photo: Wolfgang Weihs +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Thalidomide victims in Spain are demanding compensation similar to Germany's

The class-action lawsuit in Spain seeks answers to the question of who was responsible for the delay in banning the drug in Spain and who for the lack of notification about the drug's serious side effects: the authorities, the licensees, or the German manufacturer?

According to Avite's lawyers, copies of the correspondence between Grünenthal and one of the Spanish licensees, Medinsa, on December 21, 1961, shows that the German pharmaceutical company agreed "to not inform Spanish doctors of the reason for the sales ban."

Spain lagging behind

In most countries where the pills were sold compensation has been paid to survivors, either by pharmaceutical companies, governments, or a combination of both.

"Depending on the degree of debilitation, victims receive a monthly annuity from the government, which this year, fittingly, has been sharply increased [in Germany] to as much as 6,000 euros. Everything is based on a point system of how severe the handicap is," German lawyer, Stefan Pfalzgraf, explained in an interview with DW. But, he said, "it took decades [for the company] to come around that it possibly could have made a mistake."

Pfalzgraf has personally experienced the consequences of the product first-hand. He was born in December, 1960 with deformities after his mother had taken the drug while pregnant. As a consequence, his arms only reach to his elbows and he has only three fingers on his right hand and four fingers on his left.

And yet, he says he's better off than some of the other thalidomide victims, which are bound to wheelchairs, or didn't survive at all. Pfalzgraf didn't let his shortcomings take over his life and instead played sports, graduated from high school and studied law. Now, he's married with three children and is an active member in Germany of the Association for Contergan Victims.

Spanish sufferers

Thalidomide victims in Spain have no such compensation and went to court to demand the same treatment as in Germany. The presence of victims in Spain was not even officially recognized until 2010 when the government finally granted 23 of them aid - ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 euros - depending on the degree of disability.

Photo of a child with birth defects.

The birth defects from thalidomide are often severe

Grünenthal originally paid German victims nearly 600 million euros in damages, while Spanish victims have not received anything from the company so far, said Ignacio Martinez, a lawyer representing the Spaniards. About 30 Spanish victims attended the trial in Madrid on Monday (14.10.2013) wearing signs around their necks demanding justice.

Grünenthal earlier offered to pay Spanish sufferers a total sum of 120,000 euros annually, but that was rejected as being far too low,

Speaking as an attorney, Pfalzgraf said the issue of who legally shoulders the blame has never been clarified.

"After many months at trial [in Germany], with all the defendants and defense lawyers, a compromise was reached in which the lawsuit would be dropped, if Grünenthal paid a lump sum into a trust so that compensation, at least initially, could be assured," said Pfalzgraf. The German government and Grünenthal both paid into the trust, which is now operated exclusively by the government, he added.

At the Spanish trial, lawyers for Grünenthal argued that there was no absolute evidence of the victim's deformities having been caused by thalidomide.

Grünenthal said in a press release that it "sincerely deplores the tragedy of thalidomide," but that "the legitimacy of any proceedings could be seriously jeopardized" by the fact that more than 50 years had passed since the events in question. Spanish thalidomide victims had the option of seeking aid through two German foundations to "receive the same economic benefits" as the German victims, the company said.

German lawyer and victim, Stefan Pfalzgraf, noted that Grünenthal had denied all responsibility during the trial in Germany and that it was "very difficult to prove that they knew about the side effects and didn't make them public."

Pfalzgraf also told DW that the drug was still in circulation in parts of Africa.

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