South Africa's Forgotten Thalidomide Survivors

Posted on Tuesday 16th December, 2014

The story of thalidomide seems to be never ending: survivors turn up in the most unlikely places - here Tony Carnie documents the case of two women in South Africa who believe that their disabilities were caused by the morning sickness drug that damaged tens of thousands in the womb

Tony Carnie - South Africa-based journalist
Tony Carnie - South Africa-based journalist

Fifty years after thalidomide tablets killed, crippled or deformed well over 10 000 children in at least 46 countries across the world, two women from South Africa have opened the door for potentially-forgotten African victims of the thalidomide scandal to lodge belated claims for compensation. 

South Africa has not generally been associated with thalidomide injuries, with historical records suggesting that the German-made drug never reached this country. 

However, English-born historian Dr Julie Parle and other thalidomide researchers has uncovered evidence recently that a small consignment of these drugs was imported to South Africa in the early 1960s - a fact that was acknowledged officially in November 2014 by the drug-makers, Grünenthal, in response to queries by a local newspaper. 

The two South African women, Kathy Williams and Elizabeth van Vuuren, were inspired to lay claims following the belated legal victory of Australian thalidomider, Lynette Rowe, in 2012. 

After reading about the Australian case, both women subsequently lodged claims against the Contergan Foundation, a German-based trust fund set up to compensate and support victims of thalidomide. 

But their claims now appear to have been rejected by the Conterganstiftung on the basis that there was no conclusive proof that their injuries were typical of classical thalidomide deformity. 

Nevertheless, responding to queries by The Mercury, a South African morning newspaper, the Grünenthal group has now acknowledged that "those affected in South Africa are entitled to receive [compensation] payments because thalidomide was introduced in the country in the early 1960s". 

Grünenthal has subsequently declined to provide any further details on the quantity of thalidomide-containing drugs sent to South Africa in the 1960s, nor whether all these drugs were recalled. 

The two South African claimants, however, insist that they were exposed to thalidomide in separate parts of the country after their mothers were given free 'doctors' samples' of the tablets by local GPs. 

Kathy Williams was born with grossly deformed legs and a missing forearm in 1964, while Elizabeth van Vuuren was born in 1963 with a missing leg. 
Kathy Williams with daughters Jynelle 11 and Tyffinin 6
Kathy Williams with daughters Jynelle 11 and Tyffinin 6

The Mercury newspaper tried to contact the doctors identified by the claimants, but one has died and the other is now in his 80s and in poor health. 

Like many other affected people, neither Kathy nor Elizabeth have been able to provide documentary proof of exposure to thalidomide, such as doctors' prescriptions.  Yet they believe there could be other South Africans who were also affected, but who remain unrecognised officially.  And they are hoping new evidence may still emerge to support their case. 

Though she has had half a century to get used to it, Kathy still feels the eyes of strangers roaming over her body whenever she ventures out in public. 

"People don't really know how to handle me.  They stare, point, turn their backs or run away.  Sometimes they try to ignore me or assume I am mentally impaired," says Kathy, who now has five children - none of whom were born with any congenital birth deformities. 

"Maybe it is because I am not confined safely in a wheelchair.  So I stand out more as this 'funny little person' hobbling about on crutches."

Julie Parle, an associate professor of history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal - who is researching the history of the drug with a network of global researchers - says it is clear that Grünenthal and the Distillers group in the United Kingdom were vying fiercely for new markets in several nations, including South Africa. 

Parle established that Grünenthal applied for a patent for thalidomide in South Africa in 1956.  It was granted in 1957 and, the following year, it applied to register three trademarks for three thalidomide preparations. 

She says Grünenthal's own records suggest that a limited supply of Softenon tablets, syrup and suppositories were imported as samples and products via Port Elizabeth in 1960. 

Tony Carnie, the author of this article, is a journalist with the South African morning newspaper, The Mercury.  He was born in Kenya, East Africa, in 1962 with hand and arm deformities linked to thalidomide.

Tags: Thalidomide South Africa Contergan Grünenthal Dysmelia Article


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