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Programme Four: The Legacy of Thalidomide

In 1957 a "wonder" drug came on the market. It was advertised aggressively, and the drug's manufacturer, German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal, claimed it as a very safe sedative with a large number of possible applications. Women were encouraged to take it to alleviate "morning sickness" in pregnancy. But the drug had not been sufficiently tested, and went on to cause an outbreak of physical deformities in tens of thousands of children across the world. Many of these did not survive early childhood, and countless more had already died in the uterus.

The drug was licenced for sale in Ireland early in 1959. 32 people in Republic of Ireland are acknowledged as damaged by the thalidomide drug. There may be survivors that remain unacknowledged. Because of a lack of public information, the drug continued to be available in Ireland long after it was officially withdrawn from the market in November 1961. Thalidomide was available by prescription, but also over the counter; so proof that it had been taken was often difficult. Parents of thalidomide-damaged children often devoted their lives to getting a fair deal for their children. Battles over compensation came to a head in the early 1970s. In Britain, a major media campaign shamed the distributors of the drug (Distillers) into paying substantial compensation. This served to highlight the inadequate sums offered by Chemie Grunenthal to parents of Irish children affected by the drug. It was Brendan Corish as Minister of Health who in 1974 augmented the Chemie Grunenthal offer by four. However, compensation amounts agreed in the 1970s are no longer adequate for the increased needs of thalidomiders as they reach their fifties.

The legacy of thalidomide for survivors is the challenge of everyday life.

Tommy Burbage is a publican working in the family business in Portarlington, Co. Laois. He is also a horse-owner, passionate about point-to-point racing. Tommy's arms and hands were stunted by thalidomide, but he enjoyed a normal schooling and has always felt lucky to be less damaged than many thalidomide affected colleagues.

Leigh Gath was born in Newry, and was sent to special schools in Belfast. Thalidomide left her with stunted arms and legs. She has always been a campaigner for rights for the disabled. Leigh now lives in County Limerick with fellow thalidomider Eugene Gath. They met by e-mail, through the thalidomide community, and married five years ago. Leigh recently gained a first class Honours degree in Criminal Justice (American).

Tommy Burbage, as a child, damaged by Thalidomide
Tommy Burbage, as a child, damaged by Thalidomide
Leigh Gath as a child
Leigh Gath as a child