British Government Apologizes Over 1960s Pregnancy Drug Scandal

by VR Sreeraman on  January 15, 2010 at 1:13 PM Drug News
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Britain issued a long-awaited expression of regret Thursday over the thalidomide drug scandal which left hundreds of babies deformed 50 years ago, and confirmed 32 million dollars in support.

The announcement including the 20-million-pound (22-million-euro) package was welcomed by many victims, although some questioned why it had taken so long, and others claimed the wording did not amount to a full apology.

A total of 466 survivors of the drug, which caused children to be born with physical deformities after their mothers took thalidomide for morning sickness during pregnancy, are eligible for support.

"I know many thalidomiders have waited a long time for this," Health Minister Mike O'Brien told the House of Commons, using the term for victims of the drug at the end of the 1950s.

"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," he said.

"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."

Thalidomide was banned in Britain in 1961 after its effects -- including stunted limbs, brain damage and other problems -- were highlighted, notably by media campaigners.

Thalidomide campaigner Guy Tweedy described the government apology as "absolutely wonderful".

"I'm highly delighted and so glad that it actually came, 50 years too late, but never mind. It's an apology not just to thalidomide victims but to the parents and parents who lost their children in the early days," he said.

But Freddie Astbury, head of campaign group Thalidomide UK, dismissed the minister's words as not a real apology.

"As the song says, sorry seems to be the hardest word," he said, adding: "It wasn't really an apology, it was a wave of regret. They didn't say they were sorry.

The 20-million-pound funding package was announced last month, but Tweedy said the formal apology "means as much in some ways as the money," adding: "It's a big day."

The maker of the drug in Britain, Distillers Biochemicals, paid some 28 million pounds in compensation in the 1970s after a legal battle by the families of victims.

There are an estimated 12,000 thalidomide survivors worldwide, according to Thalidomide UK. The first thalidomide victim was born in Germany, it said.

Last year Brazil's federal court ordered the government there to compensate children of mothers who took thalidomide.

O'Brien said he could not explain why previous British governments had not decided to voice regret, saying that Enoch Powell, health minister at the time, could not explain himself "from beyond the grave."

"I think it will be important to the many families and the thalidomiders themselves who have for the past 50 years been looking for words like that to be said," he told BBC television.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government is struggling to avoid predicted defeat in elections due by June this year after 13 years in power.

Source: AFP

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