Thalidomide scandal resurfaces

Why was it rushed onto the market without the obvious testing having been done?

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new mild sedative/sleeping pill came into use in Britain. It was marketed as ‘safe’ for pregnant women, who were told that it would ease or even stop morning sickness. No wonder, then, that GPs prescribed it to thousands of pregnant women – not just here in Britain, but all over the world.

The ‘wonder drug’ was called thalidomide, and would leave thousands of children to grow up with badly deformed arms and legs, while thousands more died in the womb or shortly after birth as a result of internal deformities. Not only were these young lives needlessly destroyed, but the lives of many of their mothers were blighted by the trauma and the burden of guilt they carried at having sought out the ‘wonder drug’ that they had hoped would put an end to the misery of morning sickness and the inability to get proper rest.

Thalidomide was developed in 1953 by German pharmaceutical giant Grünenthal. It received a UK licence in 1958 and from that time on was manufactured in Britain by Biochemicals Limited (now Diageo). It was not long before hospitals around the world, wherever thalidomide was licensed, started registering abnormally large numbers of birth deformities. Investigations all pointed to thalidomide, and it was withdrawn in 1961.

In 1968, Biochemicals reached an agreement with those affected in Britain, but only after a long court battle. Of course, the drug was supposed to have gone through many tests before going on sale, and as it was to be aimed at pregnant women it is surely not unreasonable to ask why this ‘problem’ had not shown up earlier?

Moreover, before the government gives a licence allowing any drug to be used in the UK, it is supposed to be investigated and tested again. So why was this drug, aimed at pregnant women, not discovered to be so harmful to unborn babies? After all, carrying a child is the one thing that makes pregnant women so different from the rest of the population! But drugs, like everything else, are produced for the purposes of realising maximum profit, and it is the quest for that profit that must be the real answer as to why tests were not carried out on possible side affects to pregnant women and their unborn children.

This much most of our older readers will already know, but we are not bringing it up now just to educate our younger readers on another past deed of corners being cut and lives ended, shortened or made a misery in the name of profits (although that would in itself be a worthy enough reason to print this article and so many more). No, it has come into the light again because, on 31 August 2012, the chief executive of Grünenthal, Harald Stock, finally issued an official apology to the survivors of thalidomide, just over 50 years after the ‘wonder drug’ was found to be the cause of so much death, disability and distress.

The company has never paid a penny of compensation for the terrible effects of their drug – or even so much as mentioned before now the killing and maiming of innocents that their malpractice has been responsible for. Mr Stock, referring to his company’s prolonged silence on the issue said: “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”

Campaigners, while acknowledging the belated apology, have dismissed it as an insincere gimmick unless there is going to be some compensation as well. Of course, compensation 50 years on will be a lot less of a burden for Grünenthal now that so many of those affected are no longer around to make a claim.

Others have done only slightly better than Grünenthal when it comes to making apologies. In 2010, health minister Mike O’Brien finally apologised to thalidomide survivors for the British government’s negligence in the case of thalidomide.

Meanwhile, the most important lesson for us to draw is that such carnage as was brought down on so many unborn children and their families by thalidomide is bound to recur as long as there are any profits to be made from any aspect of healthcare provision.

Only the full nationalisation of the creation, manufacture and testing of pharmaceuticals will prevent those working in the industry from being induced to take short-cuts, and prevent drug companies from offering sweeteners to doctors and politicians in order to get their products sold. Only the total integration of the pharmaceutical world with the rest of healthcare provision will make it possible to target resources at solving people’s real and urgent problems rather than chasing after the best sources of profit. And only socialism will deliver a society in which all aspects of workers’ health – whether individual or collective, physical or mental – are its absolute top priority, rather than just a possible side-effect of various profit-driven activities.