Drug company knew thalidomide was harming babies

A Melbourne lawyer has revealed the shocking truth about the thalidomide tragedy of the 1950s and 60s: the managers of the company selling the drug here in Australia knew the drug was dangerous and, worse still, they actively covered up the concerns.

“Thalidomide babies” suffered extensive birth defects as a result of their mothers being prescribed the drug to relieve morning sickness. More than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities as a consequence of thalidomide use and many more died soon after birth.

In a book to be released on Monday, Michael Magazanik reveals the smoking gun: a former employee of Distillers, a British Company, who was told to keep quiet.

Now in his 80s, Hubert Woodford told Mr Magazanik how his bosses at Sydney-based Distillers would sit around together, drinking whiskey and talking about how the health concerns would affect sales of the “wonder drug” in Australia.

At this same time, Australian obstetrician William McBride was working with German paediatrician Widukind Lenz to determine a link between birth defects and thalidomide. The theory was proved in 1961 but Distillers allegedly failed to act on the evidence for up to five months, leading to thousands of avoidable deaths and defects here in Australia and also overseas.

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Mr Woodhouse said his superiors “definitely” knew about the risks.

This isn’t the first time the medical industry has been slow to act on evidence of harm. British epidemiologist Alice Stewart knew that x-rays during pregnancy caused childhood cancers, but it took doctors, who loved the convenience and certainty of x-ray, 25 years to accept her findings.

Silent Shock: The Men Behind the Thalidomide Scandal and an Australian Family’s Long Road to Justice is published on Monday. Preorder your copy here. A lawyer and former journalist, Mr Magazanik represented Australian thalidomide victims who successfully sued the British firm Diageo, which owns Distillers in 2013. In 2014, the Victorian Supreme Court signed off on a $89 million class action settlement for thalidomide victims in Australia and New Zealand.

Do you remember the scandal of the “thalidomide babies” and are you shocked to learn that the drug company did not act on evidence it was causing such harm?