European Parliament demands Berlin compensate victims of killer drug

An apparatus from the 1960s designed for children born with no limbs, one of the most shocking side-effects of thalidomide. [Olaf Janssen/ Flickr]

The European Parliament has demanded justice for the victims of a German pharmaceutical drug that caused thousands of children to be born with deformities and many more to die, 60 years after the scandal first broke. EURACTIV Spain reports.

A large majority of MEPs adopted a resolution calling on Germany to finally compensate all EU victims of the drug thalidomide, which was marketed in the 1950s and 1960s and was meant to combat morning sickness in pregnant women but ended up causing thousands of children to be born with deformed limbs.

EU lawmakers demanded that Berlin amend its forthcoming 2017 “Thalidomide law” so that it does not just pay out compensation to German victims but also to other EU nationals, as the drug was not just sold over the counter in West Germany.

The resolution, which received huge support from Spanish MEPs, also called on Madrid to review its 2010 legislation and set up a new record of those affected by thalidomide, so that claims for compensation can be made more efficiently.

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The text also calls on the European Commission to create an EU-wide protocol that will allow all survivors of thalidomide exposure to receive compensation, regardless of where in the bloc they come from.

German company Grünenthal started selling thalidomide in 1957 as an anti-nausea and dizziness remedy for pregnant women. It was marketed in over 50 countries globally, under more than 80 different trade names.

Over the last two years, the victims of the drug’s side-effects have brought their plight to the attention of the Parliament and the institution’s president, Martin Schulz, has even got involved with the case.

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According to Avite, Spain’s association for people affected by the drug, more than 20,000 newborns worldwide have been affected by thalidomide, 3,000 of those in Spain itself.

In Germany, victims at least benefited from an agreement struck with the pharmaceutical company, but Spain missed out on that deal, even though both parties met in a Madrid court.

The Spanish government officially acknowledged the existence of the affected parties in 2010, when a royal decree approved aid, a measure that MEP and registered doctor Soledad Cabezón (S&D group) has labelled as “insufficient”. She also called the thalidomide scandal “the worst disaster of 21st century medicine”.

In 2011, Avite sued Grünenthal and argued that the drug continued to be sold in Spain after it was withdrawn from the German market.

In August 2012, the company apologised to those that had been affected and in November 2013 a Madrid court ordered the German outfit to pay out €20,000 for every disability point officially recognised. This ruling was later quashed by two higher Spanish courts.

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Before the plenary vote, Spanish MEP Esteban González Pons (EPP group) highlighted that thalidomide had been invented by the Nazis and regretted that the victims had to “grow up crying”. He added that “less bureaucracy” was needed to get the families the compensation they deserve.

Cabezón added that she hopes Germany will now set in motion the measures needed to do right by the victims but warned that it did not relieve the Bundesrepublik of its “responsibility to other countries”.

MEP Beatriz Becerra (ALDE) denounced the Contergan Foundation, a body funded by Grünenthal and the German state, for only compensating two Spanish victims to date, out of the hundreds of people affected by the drug who are still alive.

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