Public not warned about thalidomide despite withdrawal


THE DEPARTMENT of Health failed to immediately warn the public about the dangers of thalidomide when it was withdrawn by its German manufacturer in 1961 because “suspicions about the drug had not been confirmed”, it was subsequently claimed in a memorandum to cabinet.

Cabinet files from 1973 and 1974, which deal with the government’s response to the scandal at the time, have been viewed in the National Archives by The Irish Times.

They indicate that the drug, which was used to treat morning sickness and resulted in thousands of children being born deformed, was withdrawn in December 1961 by pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünenthal but the Department of Health did not notify doctors and hospitals until July 1962.

A few Irish women continued to take the drug during pregnancies that began as late as spring 1962.

Amid growing pressure in the early 1970s to offer redress to thalidomide victims here, the cabinet was told the drug’s German manufacturer had agreed to pay some compensation, but its payouts to individuals here were “a fraction” of payments offered to survivors in the UK by the company that made the drug there under licence.

The cabinet, in considering supplementing the German payouts, was anxious not to accept liability for disability caused by the drug. One memo for cabinet in October 1974, when Liam Cosgrave was taoiseach, advised that “the attorney general made it clear that the government was under no legal obligation or moral obligation arising from neglect on its own part”.

But the same memo also noted that if the Irish government topped up the payouts made by the drug manufacturer “it would dispose of this problem to a considerable extent and would not have it dragging on indefinitely”.

There was concern, however, that if top-up payments were made to victims, “the State will be paying considerable sums to children who may be maintained in an institution, free of charge, for the rest of their lives”. This was at a time when it was known there were just 33 children affected by the German-made product.

Another memorandum for government in early February 1973, when Jack Lynch was taoiseach and Erskine Childers was minister for health, noted the argument had been advanced that the government should be held responsible for what happened, as there was no service for monitoring the safety of drugs in this country when thalidomide was on sale between 1959 and 1962.

“However at the time few countries had a drug-monitoring service in operation and it was only as a result of the thalidomide experience that such services were established . . . even in countries where such national control systems were in operation, including the US, there was no organised body of medical opinion which deemed it necessary to test new drugs for possible effects on the foetus of a pregnant patient,” the memo stated.

In relation to suggestions that the Department of Health should have issued a warning when the drug was withdrawn in case people still had it at home, it said: “This line of attack fails to take account of the climate of knowledge at that time. The suspicions about the drug had not been confirmed and it was not at all obvious that an immediate public statement on the matter should be issued by the department.”

Nonetheless, the document added that there was “considerable public sympathy for the victims of this unique tragedy” and pressure for something to be done by way of compensation for victims “will be difficult to contain”.

In late 1974 the cabinet agreed to augment the German payouts to victims by £400,000 in total. Each child was to be given a lump sum plus a monthly payment for life, costing about “£24,000 annually, diminishing eventually as the beneficiaries died”.

This decision resulted in victims here, at the time, getting lump sums of between about £6,000 and £20,000 depending on their level of disability, plus monthly allowances of £50 to £150 for life.

The government had agreed to give each child a lump sum that was four times that offered by the manufacturer and a monthly payment equal to that offered by the drug company. But cabinet papers from December 1974 indicate average payouts in Britain were £55,000; in Australia £40,000; and in Japan £40,200 to £57,500.

The Department of Health says monthly payments to Irish survivors in 2010 terms range between €514 and €1,109.