The Canadian tragedy.
Thalidomide was synthesized in West Germany in 19541 by Chemie Grünenthal. It was marketed (available to patients) from October 1, 1957 (West Germany) into the early 1960’s. Thalidomide was present in at least 46 countries under many different brand names. (See The many faces of Thalidomide for a partial list of those names.)
Thalidomide became available in “sample tablet form” in Canada in late 1959. It was licensed for prescription use on April 1, 1961. Although thalidomide was withdrawn from the West German and United Kingdom markets by December 2, 1961, it remained legally available in Canada until March 2, 1962, a full three months later. Incredulously thalidomide was still available in some Canadian pharmacies until mid-May 1962.
Thalidomide, was hailed as a “wonder drug” that provided a “safe, sound sleep”.
Thalidomide was a sedative that was found to be effective when given to pregnant women to combat many of the symptoms associated with morning sickness. It was not realized that thalidomide molecules could cross the placental wall affecting the foetus until it was too late.
Thalidomide was a catastrophic drug with tragic side effects. Not only did a percentage of the population experience the effects of peripheral neuritis, a devastating and sometimes irreversible side effect, but thalidomide became notorious as the killer and disabler of thousands of babies.
When thalidomide was taken during pregnancy (particularly during a specific window of time in the first trimester), it caused startling birth malformations, and death to babies. Any part of the foetus that was in development at the time of ingestion could be affected.
For those babies who survived, birth defects included: deafness, blindness, disfigurement, cleft palate, many other internal disabilities, and of course the disabilities most associated with thalidomide: phocomelia (see FAQ).
The numbers vary from source to source as no proper census was ever taken, but it has been claimed that there were between ten and twenty thousand babies born disabled as a consequence of the drug thalidomide. There are approximately 5,000 survivors alive today, around the world. Never counted and never to be known, are the numbers of babies miscarried, or stillborn, let alone the number of family members and parents who have suffered over the years.
Around the world, in the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, the victims of the drug thalidomide and their families entered into class action legal suits, or threatened actions, against the various drug companies who manufactured and/or distributed the drug, and they were eventually awarded settlements. In most countries, these settlements included monthly or annual payments based on the level of disability of the individual.
In Canada, the story was quite different. Canadian victims of the drug were forced to go it alone, family by family. No case ever reached a trial verdict. Rather, families were forced to settle out-of-court with gag orders imposed on them not to discuss the amounts of their settlements. This resulted in wide disparity in the compensation amounts, with settlements for individuals with the same levels of disability varying by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 1987, the War Amputations of Canada established The Thalidomide Task Force to seek compensation for Canadian-born thalidomide victims from the government of Canada. As Canada had allowed the drug onto the Canadian market when many warnings were already available about side effects associated with thalidomide, and as Canada left the drug on the market a full three months after the majority of the world had withdrawn the drug, it was felt and argued that the government of Canada had a moral responsibility to ensure that thalidomide victims were properly compensated.
In 1991, the Ministry of National Health and Welfare (now Health Canada), through an “Extraordinary Assistance Plan” awarded small compassionate lump-sum financial assistance grants to Canadian-born thalidomiders. These payments were quickly used by individuals to cover some of the extraordinary costs of their disabilities, and for most victims, these monies are long gone.
Thalidomiders are now in their early fifties and they are experiencing physical deterioration due to stress placed on their different body structures, further limiting their abilities, often resulting in new disabilities (see degeneration) , and therefore compounding the tragedy. The needs and problems of this unique population are many and overwhelming.