Thalidomide survivors hope to strike blow for justice against pharma ‘bullies’


theweeksubThalidomide survivors are seeking public support for their bid to force the company that manufactured the drug to finally accept responsibility and pay them compensation.

They hope that 100,000 people will eventually sign their petitions, and put fresh pressure on the German pharmaceutical giant Grunenthal to accept its responsibility for the damage caused by the drug.

Thalidomide was used in the late 1950s and early 1960s to treat ailments such as headaches, coughs and colds, but was also used by pregnant women with morning sickness.

It was finally withdrawn in 1961, but not before it was responsible for thousands of babies born with impairments, as well as – say campaigners – tens of thousands of miscarriages and stillbirths.

Despite a long-awaited apology last summer – in which a senior executive spoke of the company’s “sincere regrets”, but shied away from accepting any blame – Grunenthal has never accepted responsibility for the harm caused by its drug, and has never paid financial compensation to the British survivors.

Many thalidomiders in the UK are now living with chronic pain and neurological problems.

One of them is Billy Burton, who is experiencing problems with his nervous and musculoskeletal systems, as well as hearing and respiratory problems.

He said: “I am 50, but my body is about 65.”

He visits hospital 10 times a month for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, paid for by the NHS. “If I had a lump sum, I could afford to do that in my own time at my own convenience. It is a huge burden that should be taken off the NHS.”

He said he saw Grunenthal “as bullies who think they have the God-given right just to walk away from the horrific tragedy they caused, without showing even a hint of compassion for the hurt, pain and suffering they have inflicted on thousands of people”.

He said: “The lack of compassion is reflected in the fact that not only have they ignored us for the last 50 years but if they can put us off for the next 20 or 30 years we will all have died and then there will be no case to answer to.

“If myself and other thalidomiders can get petitions signed by 100,000 people, that will be the weapon in our hands which will give us the ability to take them on.

“It’s not only for our compensation but also to send the message to big pharmaceutical companies that they cannot get away with it any longer.”

Burton spent nearly 20 years in prison in the Philippines for smuggling cannabis, before finally securing his release last year.

Now he says he will use the tenacity and “never say die approach” that allowed him to survive in one of the world’s harshest prisons to fight for compensation for himself and the other thalidomiders.

He said: “I do have that spirit as a survivor. I am certainly up for the fight. These people are going to pay for it.

“I went to prison. I admitted it. You stand up like a man and you take the punishment. These people are making billions and billions and are trying to worm their way out of it.”

He wants supporters to sign his petition, and to back the ShowYourHand campaign, which is being led by three prominent thalidomide-impaired activists, Nick Dobrik, Mikey Argy and Guy Tweedy, who himself played a huge part in securing Burton’s release from prison.

Although the company that marketed the drug in the UK eventually paid some compensation to thalidomide survivors, many survivors found it increasingly difficult to survive financially, because of equipment costs and deteriorating health.

The Labour government announced £20 million in support for England’s surviving thalidomiders in December 2009, while the coalition extended the programme with a 10-year, £80 million grant last December.

Thalidomiders say on their ShowYourHand website that Grunenthal “cannot hope to be a modern, ethical pharmaceutical company without acknowledging the sins of the past and initiating a restitution process”.

Grunenthal has so far failed to respond to a request for a comment.

12 June 2013