April 3, 2008 / 9:01 AM / in 10 years

Thalidomide victims seek compensation, 50 years on

LONDON (Reuters) - Half a century after the launch of the notorious morning sickness pill thalidomide, its surviving victims are demanding 4 billion euros ($6.3 billion) in compensation from the German government and the drug’s maker.

A newly formed group, the International Contergan Thalidomide Alliance (ICTA), kicked off a campaign for a global settlement in London on Thursday with a planned demonstration outside the German embassy.

Thalidomide, sold under brands names including Contergan and Distaval, was first made by privately owned German group Grunenthal and marketed internationally to pregnant women.

It proved a disaster. Around 10,000 babies were born with defects caused by the drug, ranging from malformed limbs to no arms or legs.

An estimated 3,500 victims are still alive today and are finding life increasingly difficult as they get older. ICTA campaign leader Nick Dobrik said compensation plans agreed in the 1970s were no longer enough to pay the bills.

Settlements also varied widely, with victims in Germany receiving only a fraction of their counterparts in Britain, and those in Italy and Spain getting no compensation at all.

“The original settlements were totally inadequate,” Dobrik told Reuters, pointing out that many middle-aged thalidomiders now face growing financial problems as their parents -- and principal caregivers -- become infirm or die.

As a result, his group wants the German government to lead joint negotiations with Grunenthal to ensure every surviving victim with average levels of disability gets 1 million euros over 10 years.

CANCER DRUG

Grunenthal, which paid a settlement in the 1970s, said in a statement it was not clear who ICTA represented or why it was authorized to make such demands, and it accused the group of “actively and aggressively” attacking the company.

Grunenthal had already decided to contribute voluntarily to the improvement of the quality of life for victims, it added.

A spokesman for Germany’s Ministry for Families, Seniors, Women and Youth said the government had recently taken steps to double the pensions of thalidomide victims, though it acknowledged that further measures would be necessary.

For the pharmaceutical industry, and society at large, thalidomide marked a turning-point. The 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.

“Society has benefited, and it seems very unfair that thalidomiders should have paid this price and not be looked after, especially in the last third of their lives,” Dobrik said.

Ironically, thalidomide has recently received a new lease of life as a cancer treatment, on the back of a development program led by U.S.-based Celgene Corp.

It won a positive recommendation from the European Medicines Agency in January as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood, but it can only be prescribed through a special pregnancy prevention program and must carry clear warnings that it causes birth defects.

Additional reporting by Mantik Kusjanto and Kerstin Gehmlich, editing by Will Waterman

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