Forced to Beg: New Scandal of Thalidomide
by Daniel Foggo London Times February 15, 2008
Thalidomide victims beg in Spain
Slumped on the pavement, they plead for coins from strangers, their drastically stunted arms too short even to hold out their hands to passers-by.
One, Juan Carlos Vélez, styles himself as a “living statue”, hoping to use his own immobility to garner people’s spare change, while the other, known only as Carlos, openly begs on the street.
Living in poverty is a constant threat for those who were victims of the antenatal drug thalidomide in Spain.
Hundreds of afflicted babies were born in the country during the late 1950s and 1960s, yet so far neither they nor their families have received any compensation from the state or the pharmaceutical company that produced the drug.
Thalidomide, which was developed by the German company Chemie Grünenthal and prescribed to pregnant women as a treatment for morning sickness from 1957 onwards, caused children to be born with shortened or absent arms and legs. Some also suffered brain damage and other abnormalities.
While the drug, distributed in at least 46 countries worldwide, was withdrawn from use in 1961 by Germany and the UK, it continued to be prescribed in Spain.
One form of the drug was removed from circulation in 1962, but it took until 1963 for versions of the drug sold under six different tradenames to be withdrawn, according to the Spanish health ministry.
The plight of British victims has itself sparked calls for help from the UK government. Earlier this month The Sunday Times told how victims here, known as thalidomiders, are finding it harder to survive financially as their crippled bodies age and they need expensive items such as wheelchairs.
Lord Ashley - who campaigned in the 1970s to make Distillers, the company which licensed thalidomide in Britain, fully compensate the victims - last week called for the government to intervene. The government has said it is “not persuaded” of their cause.
In Spain the authorities have proved similarly intransigent. Most of those who now believe themselves to be thalidomiders have only come to that realisation in adulthood, since the scandal unfolded while the country was under General Franco and the issue was stifled by the media.
The Spanish thalidomiders’ recent appeals to Grünenthal, which has only ever compensated the German-born victims, have been met with silence.
Two years ago, following lobbying by AVITE (the association of victims of thalidomide and other disabled people in Spain), the Spanish government agreed to appoint a company, CIAC, to assess their claims.
Instead of physically examining them, however, CIAC insisted on doing everything by post using photographs and documents. Only those whose mothers had the foresight to retain their prescriptions - a total of three out of around 150 - have been told they “could” have been affected by thalidomide.
However, so far none has received any compensation and the assessors have said they will not consider any further applications. That is why it is impossible for people like Juan Carlos Vélez and Carlos in the streets of Madrid even to prove they are victims of thalidomide.
Silvia San Salvador, 47, who was born with malformed arms after her mother was prescribed thalidomide in pregnancy, said: “Since we [the three with prescription evidence] have been recognised officially we were told that we would surely receive compensation, but we still haven’t heard anything. It has been two years now.”
She said that every step towards acknowledging the thalidomiders had been a struggle. “They said [our disability] was [caused by] a virus, they said thalidomide wasn’t sold in Spain,” she said.
Yet, by the standards of other AVITE members San Salvador is one of the “lucky” ones who has at least now had recognition from the authorities.
José “Pepe” Riquelme, who runs AVITE, said: “Some of the victims are reduced to living on the streets and may not even know what thalidomide is or how it affected them. We have asked the government numerous times what they are going to do for us, but they have said absolutely nothing.”
Nathalie Archer, a British journalist in Spain making a television documentary on the plight of the thalidomiders said: “The way they have been treated is outrageous. The government and Grünenthal both just want them to go away.”
Grünenthal and the Spanish health ministry did not respond to our inquiries.
The International Contergan Thalidomide Alliance says the average thalidomide victim, someone with tiny arms, should receive €5,000 (£4,500) a month.
German victims receive an average of £900 a month, while Italian victims have provisionally agreed government compensation of up to £43,000 a year, but have yet to receive it.
Swedish and Canadian thalidomide victims have received large one-off lump sums from their governments. Victims in Spain and Austria have had nothing.
Source: London Times