Thalidomide: The Fifty Year Fight (TV Review)

Thalidomide: The Fifty Year Fight (TV Review)

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BBC2’s, ‘Thalidomide: The Fifty Year Fight’ was an incredibly powerful, and often, heartbreaking look back at the fifty year struggle faced by the children and their families who were affected by thalidomide.  The drug was prescribed by doctors to pregnant mothers’ suffering morning sickness; but no-one anticipated the devastating and lifelong effect it was to have on their babies.  Available from 1959 to 1963, it was concluded that “well in excess of 100,000 babies were either destroyed or damaged by the drug.”  Those affected then faced a lengthy, and in many cases, mentally exhausting legal battle with distributors of the drug, Distiller in their fight to achieve justice and a compensation settlement that reflected the seriousness of their children’s ongoing disabilities.  But how was it then, that an alcoholic drinks company would become involved in one of the most shocking medical blunders in recent times?

The introduction of the now infamous drug can be traced back to a single newspaper article, which highlighted the benefits of the drug valium.  As the article suggested that consumers would prefer to take this sedative rather than an alcoholic equivalent, those on Distillers board were looking for a way to compete.  To calm their fears they turned to German company Chemi Grunethal; who had invented and licensed a drug tranquiliser, proven to be non toxic and impossible to overdose on. Distaval was considered amongst the medical profession as a “good drug and was a huge success.”

Why though, was this tranquilizer prescribed to alleviate morning sickness?  It appears that as recently as the 1950’s it was believed morning sickness was purely psychosomatic, brought on by expectant mothers being “very excited” by their pregnancy.  A tranquiliser was deemed the most effective way to treat this, and as Distaval was considered to be so safe, it was freely given to mothers.

It was later discovered that, if taken in the first 42 days of pregnancy, the drug would have terrible consequences for the development of the baby, the scale of disability varying depending on what day it was taken.  Taken on day 20 it could cause central brain damage, days 21, 22 and 23 the eyes ears and face were affected.  From day 24 onwards the arms, legs and in some cases both were irreversibly damaged.  From 1959, the surge in birth defects left medical staff unable to cope, leading to some shockingly horrific decisions.  Some hospitals simply ignored the problem, sending the wrapped up baby home for the mother to then discover the defects.  Yet this extreme action was by no means the exception, some of the affected newborns were either suffocated or left in a cold room to die – an act that seems incomprehensible to many of us, especially from those most trusted.  David Mason OBE, whose daughter Louise was affected, recalled his cold meeting with the doctor.  “He said, I wonder if we could have a word – no congratulations or anything like that.”  Emotionally remembering first seeing his daughter, with “what looked like little flowers where her arms and legs should have been.” For those babies that did survive, their parents were faced with a heartbreaking decision, as it was strongly recommended that their baby immediately be placed in care.  Those advising them suggested they couldn’t possibly provide a life for their child with such serious birth defects.

The drug, which sold 180 million tablets to 46 countries, remained on sale for three years before it was linked to the birth defects causing a global tragedy.  In the UK 550 thalidomide babies survived past their first few months, yet despite their obvious handicaps, Distillers refused to accept any liability, even though, according to one expert, “We’re looking at the very worst disaster inflicted by medicine.”  The families of those affected would never be the same again, with many being torn apart by the tragedy.  One reporter remembered, “A lot of the fathers couldn’t cope, there was a 50% divorce rate.”  Mother’s too were often wracked by guilt, frequently shamed by society; as if it were somehow their fault for taking a tablet the medical profession had advised upon, unable to bear it, three mothers were driven to suicide.

Even with Distillers’ dismissive attitude, 62 families began legal proceedings against the company, and in 1968 were offered a mere 1 million pounds between them in compensation.   Given the extremely difficult financial circumstances many of the parents found themselves in, this offer seemed too good to refuse in the immediate sense, though once divided it would not have provided any long term help for their children.  It was here that one father; David Mason stepped up, seeing the amount offered as an insult he refused to sign both the agreement, and more importantly Distillers confidentiality clause protecting them from any bad press.  His actions infuriated the majority of the others parents who were understandably desperate for any financial help they might receive.  Mr Mason found himself under increasing pressure from all sides, even his own lawyers turned against him, taking him to court in order to remove him as his own daughter’s legal guardian, claiming he was not acting in her best interests.

Events then took an even more sinister turn, with Mr Mason receiving threats and abuse which not only threatening his safety but also the safety of his whole family.  Turning to the media, he was finally able to blow the whistle on Distillers, and the plight of the children their drug had affected.  However, following an initial and successful Daily Mail two page spread highlighting the issues, a media blackout was enforced, the Mail receiving threats from Government lawyers insisting the story be suppressed.  The publications stopped and David Mason lost legal guardianship of his daughter.  It took a tip off and a legal appeal for justice to finally prevail.

Whilst awaiting his appeal Mr Mason’s tip off led him to contact an American lawyer.  This lawyer had negotiated a settlement in excess of one million dollars for his client; a little girl affected by thalidomide.  The outcome of this court case would prove without a doubt that David Mason was in fact acting in his daughter’s best interest, and ensured her guardianship was returned to him.  The story was picked up by The Sunday Times; their story highlighted the plight of the families rather than attacking Distillers directly.  The thalidomide tragedy soon attracted the support of Jack Ashley MP, who himself had been deaf from the age of 45.  He campaigned vigorously on behalf of the families and their children, even ensuring a Parliamentary debate on the issue took place.  The debate, held on 29 November 1972 was pivotal, as was the impassioned speech made by Jack Ashley.  Asking MP’s, “How can it be you can have a girl with no arms to hold someone with and no legs to dance on?”  His words deeply affected David Mason, as he tearfully recalled.  “Hard words, tough words; but brilliant words.”

This increased public and media pressure was finally getting to Distillers, who upped their offer to 5 million, but Jack Ashley believed the families deserved no less than 20 million.  A provocative and effective anti-Distillers poster campaign was launched.  One reading “Mothers’ ruin.  Children’s curse.”  The onslaught of damaging posters was secretly funded by Rupert Murdoch and ensured Distillers were unable to simply ignore the issue.  Then came the calls to boycott Distillers’ various drink products; resulting in a company share loss of 9 million in just one week.  Finally, when faced with this potential financial crisis, Distillers upped their offer to the full amount of 20 million pounds, a triumph for David Mason and all those who fought with him for justice and acknowledgement.

Along with each family that received compensation, the Thalidomide Trust was also set up to provide security and support for the future of the thalidomide children.  Finally, after years of torment and hardship it was wonderful to see just how much the money was able to benefit the lives of the children and their families.  As they grew older the Trust encouraged their members to become as independent as possible; providing adapted cars which gave them a strong sense of independence and freedom.  Not only were they able to enjoy the sights of the UK but the Trust also arranged group holidays for them, allowing them to interact and have fun.  Here they were free to behave just as every young person should be able to, one member even joking “actually we invented the 18-30’s holiday because they were the equivalent”  It was also truly heart-warming to see, that now in adulthood, just how well adjusted and part of society they have become, a society that once sough to hide them and their story from view.

Following the payout, the Distillers’ brands were acquired by Diageo, who formed strong links with the Thalidomide Trust, donating 60 million over 8 years and which continues to provide financial support.  The war is still not won however, with the self-named ‘thalidomide’s’ now seeking compensation from the original inventor of the drug Chemie Grunenthal.  Protests have been held against the company, and whilst the company has made payments to Germans affected by the drug they don’t believe they have any liabilities in the UK.  As one of the remaining 468 UK thalidomide survivors simply requests “I just want them to admit liability, to say yeah it was our fault you were born that way.”  Let’s hope that within their lifetime, those who have seen both their and their family’s lives plagued by prejudice can finally achieve the justice they have spent fifty years fighting for.