The victims of Thalidomide, a lethal drug that was given to pregnant women in Uganda and other countries during the era of the British Colonial Government, are now seeking compensation from the British Government and the Government of Germany.
These victims, who are members of the Thalidomide Survivors Uganda association and are classified as People With Disabilities (PWDs), have formally requested the intervention of the Prime Minister of Uganda, Hon. Robbinah Nabbanja, in their pursuit for justice.
They are urging the Prime Minister to explore possible avenues through which they can receive compensation from the British and German governments. It is important to highlight that during the late 1950s and early 1960s, over 10,000 children in 46 countries, including Uganda, were born with deformities, such as phocomelia, due to their mothers’ use of the drug thalidomide.
Thalidomide was originally developed by the German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal and was authorized for use in the United Kingdom in 1958.
However, in 1961, it was banned worldwide after the devastating side effects of the drug came to light. While the British and German governments have provided compensation to victims within their own countries and other affected nations, the victims in Uganda have never received any form of compensation.
It is because of this refusal and or denial of the compensation that the victims of Thalidomide in Uganda have since resorted to seeking redress through the Prime Minister’s Office and other relevant Ministries in Uganda, although they assert that even then, all their efforts seem to be hitting dead ends.
The affected Ugandans, in their petition to the Prime Minister’s office dated August 01, 2023, want Nabbanja to among other things;
To set up a meeting between them, plus the Ambassadors of the United Kingdom and German respectively, to furnish both parties with details of numbers of Thalidomide Survivors in Uganda, the plight they go through, and most importantly, to set up avenues through which they can receive their compensation, which duly recognized by international law and organisations like the Contigern Act and the British Thalidomide Trust.
They also requested the Prime Minister’s Office to set up a desk or person to liaise directly with the British and German embassies in Uganda to ensure that the matter is brought to its logical end and that the victims get justice for stigmatisation, indignity and injustices they’ve suffered all their lives as a result of the Thalidomide catastrophe.
The victims also want Nabbanja’s office to work hand-in-hand with the relevant government authorities like the police, RDCs, District Health Officials and the People With Disabilities in Uganda (PWDU) to establish the exact number and addresses of Thalidomide Survivors in the country, so that an extensive list of eligible beneficiaries can be presented to the British and German governments for compensation.
In their petition, the victims also notify the Prime Minister’s Office that they presented the same matter to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, and the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs through various correspondences in 2015, and received supportive feedback for their cause from both ministries but since then the matter has never been followed up.
For instance, a letter seen by this website dated September 26, 2015 indicates that they wrote to the Ministry of Health about the matter and in reply, the former Permanent Secretary Dr. Asuman Lukwago replied urging them to pursue the matter, and stated it clearly that the Ministry was in full support of the same.
However, the victims claim that their efforts to seek redress through other relevant ministries and the Office of the Solicitor General, as evidenced in a letter dated October 08, 2015 from the Solicitor General’s Office to the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Health, have often landed on deaf ears and dead ends, reason why they decided to petition the Prime Minister’s Office.
Background Of Thalidomide Catastrophe
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities, such as phocomelia, as a consequence of their mothers using the drug thalidomide. Thalidomide was developed by the German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal.
In 1961, news linking the use of thalidomide and horrible birth defects surfaced in England, Germany, and Australia.
Thalidomide had been licensed in the United Kingdom in 1958 and was withdrawn in 1961. It was impossible to know how many pregnant women had been given the drug to help alleviate morning sickness or as a sedative.
Victims of the drug have missing, shortened upper limbs, shortened or malformed lower limbs, eye, ear, and facial damage, and malformations of internal organs.
As a result, Foundations and Trusts were established in Britain, Germany, and other European countries to compensate victims.
In 1973 the Thalidomide Trust was originally established in Britain by both Distillers and the British Government as part of the settlement between Distillers Biochemicals Ltd and Thalidomide survivors.
In 1972, the Contergan Foundation for Disabled People (Contergan Foundation) was established as a federal German foundation under public law. In 2013 the German government enacted the Contergan Foundation Act to assist disabled victims of thalidomide.
Thalidomide was available in Uganda in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it was marketed worldwide as a non-addictive sedative. Several women who had taken the drugs during pregnancy gave birth to children with a range of severe deformities such as phocomelia.
In 1962, Mulago Hospital doctors published an alert in the British Medical Journal regarding an increase in phocomelia cases in Ugandan newborns. The letter was written to send a message to Ugandans about public health concerns and negative incidents.
At the same time, the medical community in the United Kingdom was warned. Other countries had reported unusual birth abnormalities of this type.
The Ugandan victims were considered “monsters” and were left without support. Many of their peers with similar deformities were identified as Thalidomide victims and received financial support and compensation.
Ugandan survivors in UK have been paid a lump sum as their British counterparts.
But the forgotten survivors in Uganda are suffering from the same health needs and they too require lump sum payments to compensate for previous underinvestment in their health needs.
In other countries, Thalidomide survivors have been paid a lump sum when they are first recognized.
In Canada and Germany this has been recognized as payment to compensate for previous underinvestment in their health needs. In Belgium, a lump sum was provided as compensation for pain and suffering.
Following the revelation of the Thalidomide catastrophe the Thalidomide Survivors in Uganda were abandoned without appropriate support to manage their complex healthcare and disability support needs.
The victims were born with significant deformities of the limbs, eyes, and ears, as well as less visible internal deformities, including significant organ and nerve damage, with no pattern of family history.
Neither doctors nor the survivors’ families could explain the cause of their developmental problems. They were unaware that their injuries were related to Thalidomide.
Before the Thalidomide crisis in Uganda, drug safety had not been explored. Many more undiagnosed Thalidomide victims may exist, according to medical discoveries.
However, it is important to note that the biggest dilemma they face is that whenever they approach the government of Uganda for support, they are informed that Thalidomide was administered in Uganda by the British colonial government, not the Ugandan government, which took over power after independence.
This is because to date, the Ugandan Government has not accepted that it played a role in the Thalidomide tragedy.
For more than 60 years, the Ugandan Government has left Thalidomide survivors without support and has maintained that Uganda’s constitutional arrangements, as they were understood at the time, mean that the Uganda Government should not be held responsible for the Thalidomide tragedy.