Thalidomide At 50 –

By Andrew Jack

Published: September 22 2007 03:00 | Last updated: September 22 2007 03:00

Thalidomide, the best-selling sedative that triggered the world’s most notorious medicine disaster, was launched 50 years ago next week, but its legacy lives on today. It is time to do more for those who were affected.

About 10,000 children worldwide whose mothers had unwittingly taken a drug marketed for morning sickness suffered disabling birth defects. Some 40,000 more developed peripheral neuritis, causing pain and sometimes paralysis.


Many are still alive and suffering increased ill health as they age. Yet even those who have received some redress over the years have been far from adequately compensated. The Germans receive a maximum of €545 a month. The Spanish, Italians and others across the developing world get nothing at all.

It is too easy from today’s perspective to criticise lapses in the development of the medicines during the 1950s, when scientific understanding and regulatory practices were far less sophisticated. In particular, it is open to debate whether Chemie-Grunenthal, the original German developer of the drug, should have done more to test the drug and could have anticipated the birth defects it would cause. There is a stronger argument that it should have acted more quickly to restrict or withdraw the medicine once indications of peripheral neuritis emerged. That would have reduced the number of victims.

Although the company paid out a large sum at the start of the 1970s, today it and its sister companies – owned by the same family shareholders – are thriving. That brings a responsibility. But Grunenthal should not be the only one to provide support. Arguably Celgene, a US drug company that has built a profitable business marketing thalidomide and a derivative to treat multiple myeloma, could make a gesture. Most importantly, governments in nearly 50 countries authorised the drug originally. Many have turned their backs, including the UK, where the state never paid out any special compensation.

The modern world owes a debtto those who suffered because of thalidomide, which led to a strengthening of drug systems in many ways: more systematic use of testing including in pregnant animals; stronger requirements forprescriptions; tougher rules on advertising of medicines; greater co-ordination between regulators; and firmer consumer protection laws.

Society as a whole has benefited from the lessons paid for by a relatively small number now in late middle age. The burden they continue to shoulder for the rest of their lives should be further eased.