The German manufacturer of the anti-morning sickness pill thalidomide — blamed for causing birth defects in thousands of babies — has issued its first ever apology, 50 years after pulling the drug off the market. But victims say an apology is not enough.
"We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being," said Harald Stock, chief executive of Grunenthal Group, on Friday. "We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us."
The drug was marketed for pregnant women as a sedative to mostly combat morning sickness, but it led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. Thalidomide was never approved for use in pregnant women in the U.S.
Grunenthal has said that it has paid roughly 500 million euros to victims by 2010.
Stock made a public apology on Friday, after unveiling a commemorative statue dedicated to Thalidomide victims in the western German city of Stolberg, where the company is based.
There are an estimated 10,000 Thalidomide victims in the world — many of whom have condemned the company’s silence.
Canadian Thalidomide survivor Paul Murphy called the apology a "good joke" and an "insult."
"To apologize for something is one thing," Murphy said in an interview with CBC News on Saturday. "To accept responsibility to those who need it is another."
Murphy urged the manufacturer to "put the money towards those who need it."
Freddie Astbury, 52, of Liverpool, England, had a similar reaction, deeming the apology a "disgrace."
"I'm gobsmacked" he said. "It's time to put their money where their mouth is. For me to drive costs about $80,000 for a car with all the adaptations. A lot of us depend on specialist care and that runs into the millions."
'It's just pathetic'
Australian Wendy Rowe took thalidomide while she was pregnant with her daughter, Lynnette, in the 1960s and her daughter was born without arms or legs.
Lynette Rowe reached a multimillion dollar settlement with the drug's British distributor in July, but Grunenthal refused to settle.
Lynnette appeared in a wheelchair alongside her parents in Melbourne after the company issued its apology on Friday.
'Shock is having your precious child born without arms and legs. It's accepting that your child is not going to have that life that you wanted for her.' —Australian Wendy Rowe
"It's the sort of apology you give when you're not really sorry. It's also insulting," Wendy Rowe said.
"Shock is having your precious child born without arms and legs. It's accepting that your child is not going to have that life that you wanted for her," she said, sobbing as she described the impact the drug has had on her life.
Lawyer Michael Magazanik of the Australian law firm Slater & Gordon represents the Rowe family.
"In our view, it's not an apology. It's not even half an apology. In fact, it's just pathetic," Magazanik said.
Canada was one of the last countries to pull the drug off the shelves in 1962. A government task force found 115 Canadian children had been born with thalidomide-induced deformities.
In Canada, U.S.-based Richardson-Merrell Inc. distributed the drug, and families who were affected reached undisclosed individual settlements with that company. In 1990, the federal government extended assistance of $7.5 million to the Canadian-born "thalidomiders."
Thalidomide is still used today but as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer, and for leprosy. It is also being studied to see if it might be useful for other conditions including arthritis, AIDS and other cancers.