Time-lapse intervention

It’s been an emotional journey for me. Getting Cabinet approval for the Maltese Thalidomide survivors is yet another much-needed social intervention, in this case to address the injustices of the past

Speaking in parliament last Wednesday on the Thalidomide tragedy that occurred across the globe in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it did feel I was in a time capsule.

Historically, the use of the ill-fated drug had spun across 46 countries where women who were pregnant or who subsequently became pregnant led to what has been described as “the biggest man-made medical disaster ever.” More than 10,000 innocent children were born with a range of severe deformities as well as thousands of miscarriages.

The drug was randomly used as a medication for anxiety, trouble sleeping, tension, and morning sickness, all of which are pretty familiar to pregnant women. Incredibly, it was actually introduced as a sedative without having been tested on pregnant women.

Sadly, Maltese women were not spared the agony. But while in many countries victims were compensated by the guilty party – German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal – and/or their governments, it transpires that in Malta, under different Nationalist administrations, it was simply preferred to bury the whole issue and concentrate on improving the quality of butter!

However, as if opting to the use of time-lapse photography, I went back the decades to see what the local situation was really like.

What was the thinking then about the tragedy and what action was taken? How concerned were the politicians of the time?

I stumbled on a 1962 speech in parliament by the then Labour Opposition leader, Dom Mintoff on amendments to the Drugs Ordinance, wherein he asked, in his direct, inimitable style, whether parliament was seeking to “come in step” with other countries on the tragic issue of Thalidomide.

While showing concern over Thalidomide drugs already on the market when they should have been withdrawn, Mintoff said the issue was a lot more important than the proposed addition or removal of some substance to improve the quality of butter. He insisted it was important for the drugs law to include the prohibition of such confirmed harmful drugs as Thalodimide.

I also found a comment by then Labour MP Vincent Moran on the need to make sure the drugs – and those associated with them – had been withdrawn.

He said that at that moment in time he was still receiving commercial samples that contained the drug. However, their appeals were ignored, with the Thalidomide drug still kept available in Malta for pregnant women, resulting in even more births of severely deformed babies.

One of them, happily grown up and active in life, Anatole Baldacchino, quickly had me rushing back to the present during a meeting in my office as soon as I was entrusted by the Robert Abela administration with my new portfolio less than two years ago.

Anatole did not take detours. He showed me his deformed arm and revealed he was one of many Thalidomide babies in Malta who had never received any compensation, not even an apology, neither from the manufacturing company nor the government that had allowed its importation.

There was never a precise number of how many Maltese Thalidomide babies there were and how many miscarriages. So, it came to be, in 2023, our responsibility to establish a figure, which we did through a public appeal for persons who consider themselves victims of the then prevailing situation. We had 34 responses. It is obvious there were many others who have since died, alas, but to all of whom an unreserved apology is due on behalf of the State.

But does it stop with a mere apology? No. While it is wrong to judge and condemn the mistakes of 61 years ago, it seems to many that commercial interests and political lethargy had at the time been on parallel lines.

It was with personal joy and genuine pride in what this Labour government represents, that I announced a Cabinet decision to set up a €3 million compensation fund to serve as full and final settlement to those Thalidomide victims still with us.

An independent board made up of medical experts will process the whole exericise by way of verifying who qualifies for the compensation or not.

It’s been an emotional journey for me. Getting Cabinet approval for the Maltese Thalidomide survivors is yet another much-needed social intervention, in this case to address the injustices of the past.

I personally thank Prime Minister Robert Abela and my colleagues in Cabinet for their support.