LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Thalidomide, the drug that was prescribed to pregnant women and caused birth defects in their babies, was banned more than 50 years ago. Over the decades, victims around the world were compensated, and this included many European countries except for one - Spain. From Madrid, Lauren Frayer reports.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Rafael Basterrechea describes himself as a happy man. He's married with the son. He works as a construction supervisor. He drove his own car to the bar where we meet for a beer.
RAFAEL BASTERRECHEA: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: (Foreign language spoken).
BASTERRECHEA: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: He grips his glass between his shoulder and neck and gracefully takes a sip despite his disability.
BASTERRECHEA: I am a very, very typical case of Thalidomide. I have the two arms more short than a normal person.
FRAYER: Rafaela was born with short, asymmetrical arms. His elbows don't bend. He has limited movement in his shoulders. And he grew up not knowing why.
BASTERRECHEA: I never know that I am a victim of Thalidomide. I discovered this problem when I was 40 years old because I see a TV program.
FRAYER: In the late 1950s and early '60s, tens of thousands of babies were born worldwide with abnormalities like Rafael's. Their mothers had taken Thalidomide for morning sickness or as a sleep aid. The drug's German manufacturer, Grunenthal, pulled it from the market in 1961.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Concern over the tragic effects of the new sedative Thalidomide prompts President Kennedy at his press conference to call for stronger, better administered drug laws.
FRAYER: Victims in most of Europe, Japan, Australia and the U.S. got compensation from Grunenthal, its distributors or their governments. But Spain was under an opaque military dictatorship at the time. Many Spanish victims didn't hear the word Thalidomide until decades later.
JOSE RIQUELME: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: I was 17 when a doctor asked me if my mother had taken it, says Jose Riquelme, who was born with one leg and now heads a Spanish association of Thalidomide victims. So I started researching, and I learned what the rest of the world already knew. In Spain, Thalidomide was sold under various names, and there's evidence the Spanish government did not destroy its supplies of the drug in 1961. Rafael was born in '65.
RIQUELME: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: We have documents showing Thalidomide was sold in Spain until 1975 - much longer than in any other country, Jose says. We've counted 300 living victims, but we believe there were many more. Those 300 won a lawsuit against Grunenthal, but it was overturned on appeal in late 2013.
The Spanish government has compensated only 23 Spanish victims with an average of $50,000 each - not enough to pay for lifelong care. Activists say Spain has resisted compensating more people because it doesn't want to acknowledge how long the drug was on offer here. Spain's health ministry didn't respond to an interview request. Meanwhile, Thalidomide is in the news again here.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: A tiny town in Southern Spain, Olvera, population 8,500, is taking on Grunenthal. It's symbolically banned the drug company's employees from the town and is urging local doctors to swap generic brands for any of the company's medicines says town councilman Jacobo Camarero.
COUNCILMAN JACOBO CAMARERO: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: We are a small town, he says, but we all wanted to show our solidarity with the Thalidomide victims. The town doesn't have any victims itself, but Camarero says he hopes towns across Spain follow suit and demand justice for those who suffered from the drug while they're still alive. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer Madrid.
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