Twenty Years Ago Today: Thalidomide Victims on Hunger Strike

Twenty years ago today, a second Thalidomide victim joined in with a hunger strike in order to pressure the UK distributors of the drug, Distillers, into increasing the compensation for the suffering they had endured (and would continue to endure) throughout their lives. Thirty-one year old Kim Morton from Belfast joined Heather Bird of Motherwell in refusing all but water, and a third sufferer, Fred Astbury, would also embark on the hunger strike in the coming days. One of their chief complaints was that the meagre compensation their parents agreed to when they were only children was taxed by the government before it even reached them, and they were forced to rely on social security to make ends meet. Thalidomide is not actually a bad drug in and of itself. It reduces nausea and acts as a useful sedative, and is still being used to help treat certain cancers along with Crohn's Disease. The only problem was that this was not the use it was first marketed for when it went on sale in 1957; back then, it was intended to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. It did that reasonably well, but had a terrible side effect: birth defects in the children of those pregnancies. 40-50% of the infants did not survive. Those who did mostly had deformities of the limbs, such as phocomelia (literally 'seal limb'). The drug was no longer given to pregnant women after 1961, but by then there were about 8,000 survivors across the world (and about 450 in the UK) who had to cope with some degree of deformity, and the lifelong struggles that would result. Compensation was awarded to the British victims in 1968, to be distributed by the Thalidomide Trust. But this only amounted to 40% of what they would have got if they'd taken it to court, and they had to withdraw allegations of negligence against Distillers - plus, of course, there was the 35% tax on what was considered a source of income.

Kim Morton received the equivalent of about £300,000 in 2014 money for being born with virtually no legs and some deformity in her arms; by 1994, this was pretty much gone, spent on all the extra costs you incur just by being disabled. It clearly wasn't enough for what was done to her, and to many others.

Ultimately, the campaigners would win - but it would take many long years before they saw real success. The tax was abolished in 2004. Diageo, which bought out Distillers, put substantially more money into the Thalidomide Trust in 2005, while the UK government added another £20m in 2009. An apology from the German company that originally developed the drug, Grünenthal, did not come until 2013 - more than fifty years after the fact. No one was terribly impressed.

And now, to cheer things up slightly, here's a trailer for the 2008 documentary Nobody's Perfect, in which a German sufferer, Niko von Glasow, persuades eleven others to pose along with him for a nude calendar. Kim Morton (who had in the interim been a local councillor and Mayor of Castlereagh) was one of them, and it looks like she had a ball. Yes, this is probably NSFW - also charming and life-affirming.

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