Thalidomide: Were more babies affected?
- 14 October 2013
- From the section Health
New scientific research appears to suggest the drug Thalidomide may have caused a wider range of deformities than previously thought. A new group of "Thalidomiders" now believe they should get compensation for their disabilities.
Gary Grayson, from Ipswich, shows me the very first pair of wooden legs he had to wear as a child. They are painted pink, but are heavy and ungainly.
The feet are not hinged and there is a complicated harness of steel and leather.
"They used to call me peg leg and wooden leg. They didn't have a lot of imagination!" he says about some of his former schoolmates.
He was born in 1961 with extensive deformities to his lower limbs. His mother says that staff at the hospital reacted with horror.
"When I was born she heard the nurse gasp and leave the room."
Before he was two years old he was admitted to hospital and had both his lower legs amputated. He was walking on artificial limbs within months.
His mother has signed an affidavit stating that she took Thalidomide, but he has never received any compensation for his injuries.
Thalidomide was originally marketed as a sedative, but from the late 1950s was prescribed to women around the world to combat morning sickness.
By 1961 it was clear that it was causing serious birth defects and by late 1961 it was withdrawn in the UK.
Ten thousand children were born worldwide with terrible disabilities. It is thought many more died in the womb.
After a 10-year legal battle in 1973 the British distributors Distillers agreed to pay compensation in the UK.
The Thalidomide Trust was set up and more than 400 children were admitted to the group as beneficiaries.
The German manufacturers Grunenthal have never admitted liability to the British victims nor have they contributed to the Thalidomide Trust.
A statement from Grunenthal said: "Thalidomide is part of our history and always will be and we have accepted a responsibility to offer help. We have no legal responsibility to compensate individuals affected.
Gary Grayson's parents applied to the Thalidomide Trust but doctors said his injuries weren't typical of Thalidomide.
He did not let his disability hold him back and did well at school before joining the Ministry of Defence.
The 52-year-old's work took him around the world, he rode motorbikes, married and had children. He's now an information security specialist.
"In my younger years I did not see myself as a victim," he says.
But now he has researched deeper into his own medical history and believes the proof is there.
He said: "Compensation in today's world, must naturally follow."
His case has been taken up by several law firms under the banner of the Thalidomiders legal group, which is representing a number of other clients in the UK.
The legal action has temporarily stalled over funding and insurance, but elsewhere in the world other cases continue.
As those affected get older, their health is failing.
Today in Spain 185 people affected by Thalidomide are taking Grunenthal to court. They have never received compensation from the German company and are now seeking more than £175m in damages.
In Australia last year the distributors of the drug agreed to pay damages to fifty-year-old Lynette Rowe. More cases are expected to be settled later this year.
In Britain the legal picture is complex.
The Thalidomide Trust receives money from both the UK Government and Diageo the company which acquired Distillers. Since 2006 Diageo has put in an average of £7.5 million per year and has committed to do so until 2037.
The Trust has only admitted one new beneficiary in the last year and applies strict criteria for inclusion.
Those who feel they were harmed by the drug, but do not qualify for the Trust turn to legal action in the hope of getting compensation.
Their cases may be assisted by new research being carried out at the University of Aberdeen by Dr Neil Vargesson.
His work involves observing the effect of Thalidomide on the development of chick and fish embryos.
He has in the past written expert reports for two of the solicitors acting for the new cases.
In the 1960s, experts decided that babies were damaged by the drug during a very short period in pregnancy - between 20 and 36 days after conception.
Dr Vargesson says questions can be raised about this time-sensitive window and the way the medicine reacted on each individual.
"The time-sensitive window was based on interviews with parents of severely affected children and relates to outward damage and severe internal damage."
He concludes that: "Given the range of damage in Thalidomide survivors and given animal studies that show in one litter each foetus is damaged differently it's clear to me the drug acts differently in each individual and embryo."
That would mean that it is possible Thalidomide caused a wider range of damage than was first thought.
But he admits that: "We will never know the true range, it's so difficult to go back 55 years and say well let's have a look at these people, because most of them, we don't even know who those people are."
His work though is highly controversial. Other experts in the field disagree with his conclusions.
Gary Grayson is busy with his career in IT and does all his own DIY.
But he can see a time in the future when his health may deteriorate and he'll need more help.
For that reason he is determined to continue with his legal action, but also for a much more personal reason too.
"It would mean the world to me, to be able to ring my mother and say they've admitted they've made a mistake."