Thalidomide survivor condemns Gruenenthal apology

September 12, 2012

By Christine Keighery

Newry born Thalidomide survivor, Leigh Gath has spoken to The Examiner about the recent apology issued by German based company Gruenenthal, who invented the Thalidomide drug.

Acclaimed author and tireless campaigner for the rights of the disabled, Leigh spoke to us after a forty hour protest on the streets of Dublin against proposed cuts to personal assistant services for the disabled by the Irish Government.  As a result of the protest, which she spearheaded, the Irish Health Minister, was forced to deny claims of a u-turn on the decision to cut the services and PA services have been retained for the foreseeable future.

Congratulating Leigh on her successful campaign, I broached the subject of the long awaited public apology from the inventors of the devastating drug, which has been widely condemned by Thalidomide survivors worldwide.

Leigh echoed the general consensus towards what many see as an insincere and conditional apology from Gruenenthal, which never admits full responsibility for the devastating effects of the drug but instead insists that the drug’s possible side-effects “could not be detected” before it was marketed.

Like many survivors, Leigh strongly disagrees with this claim. She said, “One of Gruenenthal’s employees had a child born without ears six months before the drug came on the market. The company knew of the dangers then but they went ahead and put Thalidomide into general release.”

“In addition,” Leigh added, “Gruenenthal gave doctors throughout the world huge incentives to peddle this drug to their patients as a completely safe morning sickness sedative. Doctors were blameless as they were unaware of the side effects.”

The inspirational mum of two believes the real reason the company have chosen now to apologise – some fifty years on – is because the company is now being bought by Johnson and Johnson, manufacturers of baby products.

“You can’t really have this hanging over your head when you’re going to supply baby products!” she says.

She further claims that Gruenenthal knew about the damage the drug was doing in1960 but it took the company over a year to act on the information that was given them and to withdraw it from sale.  In the Republic of Ireland, she says the Irish government took up to another year to act on the information, quietly advising pharmacists to remove the drug from shelves without informing those who had already bought the drug about the side effects.

Leigh continued, “It’s public knowledge since the Australian lawsuits, that Gruenenthal employed top scientists from former Nazi death camps to invent the drug. Thalidomide was manufactured in the death camps as an antidote for nerve gas. It was initially released as a cure for kidney disease but when they realised after a few months that users were experiencing loss of feeling below elbows and knees it was taken off shelves for a few years before being reintroduced as a cure for morning sickness.”

The Thalidomide survivor – one of around five to six thousand survivors worldwide, concluded, “There was absolutely no reason for this to happen at all. Between sixty and fifty five years ago we all came into the world.  There were twelve of us born in Daisy Hill hospital and I’m the only survivor.

“Parents of survivors were ostracised from their friends, thrown to the side because people were embarrassed by us and didn’t know what to say.  Also, a lot of mothers of thalidomide children were accused of drinking throughout their pregnancies thus causing the deformities in their children.

She offered shocking statistics which serve to highlight the inadequacy of the company’s apology, “Of all the women that took the drug only 40% of babies made it to birth alive and only 40% of those live births made it to adulthood – the others died because they had internal damage.

“Gruenenthal has never, ever offered one single penny of compensation to anyone throughout the world affected by Thalidomide, so an apology now, means nothing.”