Thalidomide victims


THE ANNOUNCEMENT last week of a £1.1 million compensation package for Northern Ireland’s 18 surviving thalidomide victims by the North’s Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is most welcome. It highlights the lack of progress on the same issue for the Republic’s thalidomide survivors, however, despite two years of talks between Minister for Health Mary Harney and the Irish Thalidomide Association.

There are 32 survivors of the teratogenic drug thalidomide in the State. They are the sons and daughters of mothers prescribed the morning sickness medication while pregnant. Marketed between 1958 and 1961, the drug was withdrawn from use after it was linked to birth deformities in the children of mothers who had taken thalidomide while the baby was in utero.Thalidomide caused severe foetal damage by preventing the growth of new blood vessels at a critical period in the babies’ development; the most obvious effects were absent or foreshortened limbs, but children’s vision and hearing were also affected while others sustained damage to internal organs.

Many survivors have led extraordinarily successful lives, having pushed themselves beyond the immediate limitations imposed by their disabilities. However, they are paying the price of overusing muscles and joints in an attempt to maintain independence and live full lives. Many are in constant pain, while others require joint replacement surgery. Some need assistance in modifying their environment in order to continue living independently. Monetary compensation will help cover some of the costs involved.

But there are other important issues that must be considered: thalidomide was approved for use here by the State; its withdrawal was haphazardly carried out so that thalidomide continued to be used by pregnant women well after the date of official market suspension; and many women obtained the drug over the counter, making it difficult to track those affected.

A lump sum was paid to parents decades ago but amounts were small as it was not thought thalidomide victims would live long. There is a moral obligation on the Government to revisit the issue of State compensation in light of the welcome longevity of survivors. In the context of settlements recently agreed in Britain and the North, the amounts of money involved are not large enough for arguments concerning economic circumstances to hold water. Brian Cowen and Mary Harney should engage meaningfully with survivors.