A story of suffering and delayed justice

Maltese thalidomide victims' voice is finally heard.

In 1953, a new medicine called thalidomide was created, which later became a nightmare for many families, including in Malta.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the use of thalidomide by pregnant women led to what is considered one of the biggest medical disasters in history. Over 10,000 children were born with severe deformities across 46 countries, and thousands more died as a result.

Thalidomide was introduced as a tranquiliser and later marketed by the German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünenthal as a wonder drug for various symptoms, including anxiety, sleep disorders, tension, and morning sickness. However, it had never been tested on pregnant women or animals. Mothers who took thalidomide during the early months of pregnancy discovered that it caused severe deformities in their babies’ hands and feet. Administering the drug during childbirth led to mental development problems, heart issues, organ damage, and even death. In 1961, thalidomide was withdrawn from the European market.

A Maltese victim

Anatole Baldacchino is one of the victims of thalidomide. He vividly recalls an event from when he was six years old and preparing for a second operation. His mother approached him and shared a harrowing story: “When I was born, my mother endured such a martyrdom that she was admitted to a mental hospital. At that time, there was no help for children like me. When I was six, she told me that her doctor had prescribed thalidomide during her pregnancy because she felt anxious. Fortunately, she only took it for a short time and returned to the doctor to report that it hadn’t helped. During that visit, she also mentioned she might be pregnant. The doctor reacted angrily to this news,” Anatole recounted. He instructed her to stop taking the tablets immediately and to dispose of any remaining at home.

Anatole Baldacchino.

This was in 1964, the year Malta gained independence. By then, countries such as Canada, Australia, the UK, and Germany had already begun taking precautions to stop the distribution of thalidomide. However, Malta continued to distribute the drug until 1968. “I was born in 1965, and the effects of thalidomide were born with me,” said Anatole. “I have what is called Phocomelia, where proper hand or finger formation is absent. Fortunately, it didn’t impact me severely, but many others weren’t as lucky,” he added. “When I was born, my mother remembered the pills she had taken and went to the doctor for an explanation. The doctor said all sorts of things, without addressing the real issue,” Anatole recounted.

Since 1959, the Medical Health Department in Malta had been pushing to amend the law for stricter public security controls. In September 1962, a heated debate arose in the Maltese Parliament concerning thalidomide. Dom Mintoff, then the leader of the Opposition, intervened during discussions on the Food and Drug Bill. Instead of addressing the critical issue of thalidomide, the debate shifted to topics like lactic acid in margarine. “Mintoff remarked that while other countries were broadcasting warnings and amending laws to ban thalidomide, Malta was still allowing its use,” Anatole added.

“To aggravate matters, then Health Minister Pawlu Borg Olivier said a phrase that still hurts many people to this day. He told Mintoff, “As the Leader of the Opposition said, we have enough tragedies. If we can save some fuss, it is good for us.”

It is clear that Anatole is still hurt. “With those words, he acknowledged how many children were dying. He chose to remain silent to avoid a scandal. It’s shocking that in 1962 the Maltese government promised to continue studying the situation and conducting research in Malta, instead of taking immediate action.”

Anatole continues to note that, between 1962 and 1967, the Annual Health Report, which had been published every year, was halted, and all reports were issued together in 1968.

“Thalidomide was an abortive drug. This is one of the reasons why the reality was swept under the carpet. Worse still, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the British used Malta as a place to carry out research. They observed the effects of this medicine in Malta to compare them with what was happening in the UK.

“How many Maltese and Gozitan families suffered! All this is due to the stubbornness of the politicians at the time, who covered up for the British and the research they were conducting with thalidomide in Malta. This is a very important part of our country’s history,” said Anatole.

Based on research he conducted, now published in a book, between 1957 and 1968, there were around 1,500 child deaths related to thalidomide intake documented by Maltese hospitals. Records from British hospitals in Malta do not exist. Only 25 cases are officially recognised in Malta. “We have probably lost a generation. These deaths are proper catastrophes. The survivors are lucky, so to speak, though we have suffered greatly. I met people who were affected but did not come forward because for them this is still a trauma,” Anatole explained.

Justice with the victims

Finally, the victims have now been recognised. Recently, a public call has been issued for anyone who may have suffered a disability as a result of taking thalidomide. This call came after Minister for Inclusion, Social Wellbeing, and Voluntary Organisations, Julia Farrugia, apologised in 2023 for the lack of action suffered by those affected by this medicine.

Understanding the grief of these families, the authorities have decided not only to provide adequate compensation but also to expedite payments. Financial compensation will now be distributed over a period of three years instead of seven, with the first payment issued this year.

Anatole said that, while the recent actions help to some extent, it remains challenging to alleviate the suffering of children who have now become adults, along with their parents who endured so much. He emphasised that, in contrast with today’s society, where instant answers are expected from the internet or consultants, back then affected children were born into a world where nobody offered explanations beyond vague notions like “so came the matter” or “that is nature”. However, he stressed, there is a significant distinction between those who acknowledge the victims and those who actively concealed what had happened.

“As victims, we have already initiated discussions abroad to seek compensation from the original company. We also seek to engage in dialogue with the British government, as we suffered due to the actions of British colonialists. Additionally, we advocate for the establishment of a monument in a prominent location in Malta, adorned with the Maltese flag, to honor the children who have passed away. This, we believe, will serve as a continuing effort to address some of the issues we endured,” Anatole concluded.

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