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A controversial drama retelling the thalidomide tragedy has been broadcast in Germany, but not before a behind the scenes battle with the drug's manufacturer. Annette Tuffs reports
When a drug causes adverse effects, do the people affected need the help of media pressure to support their claims to compensation? This is certainly true in the case of thalidomide, Germany's worst ever pharmaceutical tragedy, which started in 1957. Its 2700 survivors in Germany were almost forgotten until a two part television drama named after the drug's German trade name, Contergan, was broadcast during prime time on 7 and 8 November, highlighting their fate and reaching millions of people. Several accompanying documentaries, interviews, and talk shows have provided additional information.
More than 50 years later, Sebastian Wirtz, chief executive officer of the pharmaceutical firm Grünenthal (the German manufacturer of thalidomide) and grandson of its founder, was the first member of his family prepared to meet people affected by thalidomide, which caused severe malformations in more than 12000 newborns worldwide. Wirtz admitted a “moral responsibility, but no moral fault of Grünenthal” in one of his rare newspaper interviews in the Aachener Zeitung and said that he would not be blackmailed into providing further compensation.
The original DM100m compensation fund was exhausted long ago and left those affected with severe complications with a maximum state sponsored compensation of about €500 (£360; $740) a month. In the United Kingdom and Sweden, where thalidomide had been licensed by other firms, more substantial compensation is provided. Grünenthal is still a privately owned drug company, and has an annual turnover of €800m.
The image of Grünenthal has suffered badly in the past weeks, and the firm's misguided communication policies have probably increased the damage. In the past two years Grünenthal has concentrated on trying to persuade the court to stop the broadcast of the original version of the film Contergan, or at least require the film's producers to alter several scenes which the firm said were fictional, therefore not true to historical reality, and showing the firm in a bad light (BMJ 2007;334:933; doi: 10.1136/bmj.39199.637986.59). In summer 2007, the court decided that the film could be shown but with a disclaimer insisting that it is a work of art rather than a documentary of the Contergan scandal. Some scenes in the screenplay had to be changed according to the wishes of Grünenthal.
In the film, lawyer Paul Wegener and his wife Vera, living in the optimistic atmosphere of economically thriving postwar Germany, receive a shock when their daughter is born without arms and only one leg. “What's the matter? Show me the baby,” says Vera after the birth. Hospital staff react by calling the deformed baby “horrible” and advising the parents to put the baby into care immediately.
But the couple take on the challenge and soon suspect a link with Contergan, a popular and allegedly harmless sleeping pill, of which Vera had taken just a single pill during her pregnancy. Together with a paediatrician who has found epidemiological evidence for Contergan's teratogenic effects, Paul Wegener forces the firm Grünenthal into a legal case—after a long courtroom battle the case was settled when Grünenthal established a voluntary fund of DM100 million.
The film shows how difficult it is for a young couple to cope with the strain of bringing up a stigmatised, handicapped child. It has been widely praised for its detailed portrayal of Germany in the 1950s and 60s and its suspense and personal depth, as well as brilliant acting, especially by the young Denise Marko, who, due to a rare genetic disease, has malformations identical to those caused by Contergan.
Germany's most popular television award, the Bambi, will be given to Contergan at the end of the month, and several European countries have either bought the television rights or, like the UK, have shown strong interest in the film.
Grünenthal is continuing its legal battle to challenge historically incorrect scenes in the film in higher courts. Sebastian Wirtz said in the Aachener Zeitung that he stands by his decision to fight for historical truth because television audiences cannot decide between fiction and history. The company website (www.grunenthal.com) has a detailed summary of events. Wirtz continues to refuse to appear in TV talk shows like those accompanying the broadcasting of the film because he considers their atmosphere to be too emotional. A meeting with Contergan victims will take place only if there is no media attention.
In the film, lawyer Paul Wegener and his wife Vera, living in economically thriving postwar Germany, receive a shock when their daughter is born without arms and only one leg