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Apology from German thalidomide company after decades of silence

August 31, 2012 | 12:49 pm

Thalidomide

The German company that manufactured thalidomide, the morning sickness drug that led to thousands of babies being born with deformed limbs and other defects, apologized to victims Friday after decades of silence.

At the Friday unveiling of a public memorial paid for by the company in the town of Stolberg, Grunenthal CEO Harald F. Stock said it regretted the grave problems the drug had caused before it was pulled from most markets in 1961.

Because its tests failed to detect hazards, many women took the medicine without knowing it could harm their babies, he said, and were left with “a heavy burden." For almost 50 years, Grunenthal had not found a way to reach out to the victims "person to person," Stock added.

“Instead, we have been silent and we are very sorry for that,” Stock said Friday, according to a translated copy of his planned remarks. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the silent shock that your fate has caused us.”

The new memorial was dismissed by some groups of thalidomide victims, who argued the company was only paying for the bronze sculptures to burnish its image, Der Spiegel reported. A German victims group told the Associated Press that the Friday apology wasn't enough.

“The apology as such doesn't help us deal with our everyday life,” Assn. of Contergan Victims spokeswoman Ilonka Stebritz told the news agency. “What we need are other things.”

After the effects were discovered, the company gave 114 million deutschmarks to a West German government foundation to support disabled children, but avoided legal liability. Nine of its executives and research employees were targeted in a lawsuit that was ultimately discontinued.

Victims around the world have continued to sue Grunenthal and the companies that marketed its drug. An Australian woman won millions of dollars earlier this year in a settlement with a British company that marketed thalidomide in her country, but had not reached agreement with Grunenthal as of last month.

“Grunenthal likes to say it did nothing wrong in relation to thalidomide, but we challenge Grunenthal to make public its own thalidomide documents and let the public decide for themselves what they think of Grunenthal’s behavior,” her attorney Michael Magazanik said in July.

Last month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that never-before-published files showed that Grunenthal had been warned by German medical professionals about deformities, but failed to act on those warnings. The company has historically maintained that it reacted promptly once it learned of the problem and acted in accordance with industry standards at the time -- a position that Stock reiterated in his Friday remarks.

Grunenthal first met with the German Federal Assn. of Thalidomide Victims less than five years ago, according to its website. It has paid an additional 50 million euros into a government foundation that provides payments ranging from $578 to $4,855 annually to thalidomide victims.

Stebritz told the Associated Press that those funds weren't enough for someone with a normal life expectancy of 85 years.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles. Carol J. Williams contributed to this report.

Photo: A cameraman films a monument for victims of thalidomide during its unveiling in Stolberg, Germany, on Friday. Credit: Henning Kaiser / European Pressphoto Agency

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