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Thalidomide scandal

Ole Kämper / gswSeptember 2, 2012

After more than 50 years, German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal has made apologetic remarks on the scandal over its drug thalidomide. Those born with birth defects resulting from the drug demand more than words.

A statue memorializing thalidomide victims +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The apologetic remarks issued by Grünenthal have been criticized by survivors of birth defects resulting from a drug the company marketed to pregnant mothers.

"It has become clear that they regret what happened back then," said the spokesperson for a national association of thalidomide victims in Germany, Ilonka Stebritz. But she stressed that the company has scarcely excused itself for manufacturing the poisonous medication.

"Grünenthal is still using the same words as always - the apology comes only in relation to the company's communication strategy, which was one of silence for over 50 years," Stebritz added.

Germany's ombudsman for disabled people, Hubert Hüppe, viewed the apology less critically.

"It was high time, and it's good that Grünenthal is finally owning up to its wrongdoing as a company," he told DW, noting his belief that it will be good for those affected by thalidomide to hear the apology.

Germany's biggest pharmaceutical scandalThe apology from Grünenthal chief executive Harald Stock coincided with the unveiling of a memorial to thalidomide victims in the village of Stolberg, where the company is based.

A bottle of Contergan, as thalidomide was known in Germany +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Thalidomide was marketed in Germany as ConterganImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In the 1950s, Grünenthal began marketing thalidomide particularly to pregnant women as a way to ease morning sickness. But elements contained in the drug led to severe consequences when the women gave birth. Worldwide around 10,000 children - of whom about 5,000 were German - were born with birth defects. The babies' arms and legs were especially affected. Around 40 percent of the victims died during or just after birth.

In 1961, Grünenthal removed the medication from the market without admitting any guilt. However, it later settled with victims for 100 million euros ($126 million), and an additional 50 million euro payment followed in 2009.

The memorial, like the apology that accompanied it, has met with opposition. Some charge that the obscure location in the little town's cultural center suggested that the company just wanted to pull off an inexpensive public relations move. The gesture cost 5,000 euros in total.

Worsening symptomsGermany's association for thalidomide victims went further in its criticism of the statue.

Protestors outside of the unveiling ceremony for the victim memorial +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Protestors attended the unveiling of the memorialImage: picture alliance / dpa

"Our members have given a very clear 'no' to this memorial sculpture with the title, 'The Sick Child,'" Stebritz said, arguing that those affected cannot be considered merely ill.

"A sickness can be cured, but defects caused by thalidomide cannot. Our arms and legs will not grow back," she said.

The group also pointed out that the surviving victims have long since passed into adulthood and are no longer children, as portrayed in the statue.

As those afflicted by thalidomide have aged, the challenges they face have increased. A study commissioned by three of Germany's main political parties claimed that the subsequent damage resulting from the drug is more severe than assumed.

"A difficult situation has emerged in that the various disabilities have much greater effects as victims get older," Hüppe explained. He said he believes quick action on behalf of policy makers needs to be made.

Seeking more supportStebritz also said more support was needed on behalf of German thalidomide survivors, who often have special needs both medically and in terms of navigating their homes and cars. Many know first hand that aging has compounded their problems.

Thalidomide victim Matthias Berg +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Growing older means further problems for many thalidomide victimsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"For example, we cannot use the normal dentures covered by public health insurers. We have to use our teeth as tools," Stebritz said. Normal dentures are not strong enough to be used for opening a bottle, for example.

Stebritz said she views the company's apology as a positive gesture - despite the criticism she raised. But it remains to be seen whether further action will follow the company's recent words.