LONDON (Reuters) - The British government apologized on Thursday to sufferers from the thalidomide scandal, half a century after thousands of babies were born with birth defects after their mothers took the morning sickness pill.
"The government wishes to express its sincere regret and deep sympathy for the injury and suffering endured by all those affected when expectant mothers took the drug thalidomide between 1958 and 1961," health minister Mike O'Brien told a hushed parliament.
"We acknowledge both the physical hardship and the emotional difficulties that have faced both the children affected and their families as a result of this drug, and the challenges that many continue to endure, often on a daily basis," he said.
"I know that a lot of Thalidomiders have waited a long time for this," O'Brien said, using the terms survivors of the drug use to refer to themselves.
The thalidomide scandal triggered a worldwide overhaul of drug-testing regimes and boosted the reputation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which proved a lone voice in refusing to approve the drug.
Thalidomide was marketed internationally to pregnant women in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a treatment for morning sickness. About 10,000 babies were born around the world with defects caused by the drug, ranging from malformed limbs to no arms or legs.
In Britain, The Thalidomide Trust helps 466 people, most of whom have two or four limbs missing as a result of their mothers having taken the drug, which was licensed for use in Britain in 1958 and withdrawn three years later.
The British survivors receive an average of less than 20,000 pounds ($32,580) a year in compensation from the manufacturers of the drug, according to media reports.
O'Brien announced the government would additionally fund a 20 million pound, three-year pilot scheme to meet the health needs of thalidomide survivors.
The trust will distribute the money to the survivors, whose healthcare needs are increasing as they get older.
"This is what we needed ... The compensation will help the Thalidomiders themselves, but the apology is very important," Guy Tweedy, of the Thalidomide Trust, told the BBC.
"To get an apology after 50 years is wonderful news."
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Matthew Jones