Government’s £80m for victims of thalidomide – but still no apology

Britain’s lax regulations contributed to scandal of babies born disfigured because of drug

Survivors in England of the world’s worst drug disaster, which led to the birth of 10,000 grossly disfigured children worldwide, are to receive £80m in compensation from the Government to help with their increasing needs.

The cash, to be paid over 10 years, will be divided between 325 of the victims of thalidomide, a drug given to pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s. Thalidomide survivors in Scotland will share £14m; those in Wales and Northern Ireland await similar announcements.

Thalidomide was prescribed between 1958 and 1961 as a drug for morning sickness, after a government agency called the Cohen Committee had approved it. But it had a devastating effect on the foetus, and children were born with missing or deformed arms and legs.

The World Health Organisation had warned that the UK’s inadequate drug regulation was courting disaster. In the US, which had tighter controls, thalidomide was not used. The Government has never apologised for its role in the disaster but three years ago it made an initial £20m payment to the victims and, for the first time, expressed its “sincere regret and deep sympathy” for the suffering caused.

Yesterday’s announcement provides security for the remaining “thalidomiders” by guaranteeing long-term financial support for their growing health needs and amounts to an acknowledgement that the Government shares the blame for the catastrophe.

Norman Lamb, Care Services minister, said his focus was on offering “practical help”. An evaluation of the £20m pilot scheme had shown that thalidomide victims needed bespoke adaptations to their homes and cars which were more expensive because of the rarity of their injuries.

“I think society has a responsibility to these people. One of the big problems is that many thalidomiders have made the most remarkable use of their bodies to compensate for having missing or shortened limbs. But that has an impact in terms of wear and tear on their bodies and a deterioration of their condition.”

The compensation from the Government comes on top of payments from Diageo, successor to Distillers, the company that distributed thalidomide in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Diageo has paid £160m over the last six years to fund the future needs of the thalidomiders.

Grünenthal, the German manufacturer of the drug, set up a €50m (£41m) fund for 3,000 thalidomide victims on the Continent, mostly in Germany, and unveiled a memorial last September when, for the first time, it expressed its “sincere regrets” and “deep sympathy” for those affected. But it has never compensated the British victims.

The catastrophe led to a fundamental reform of the way the international pharmaceutical industry is regulated and ushered in today’s system of testing and licensing. When thalidomide became available in Britain in 1958 it had not been rigorously tested and it took three years for its effects to become clear. Today, there are 470 British survivors, now in their 50s, who receive payments ranging from £5,000 to £50,000 a year depending on the severity of their disfigurement. In addition, they can qualify for annual health grants up to £35,000.

Martin Johnson, director of the Thalidomide Trust, which administers payments to the survivors, said those affected were expected to have a normal lifespan but were ageing faster than their contemporaries, and already had the fitness levels of 80-year-olds. “We are repeatedly exposed at the Trust to examples of day-to-day heroism,” he said. “They have been conditioned to behave that way since childhood… This [money] will help slow down their deterioration.”

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