SURVIVORS of the thalidomide scandal in Wales last night welcomed a £1.9m funding boost to improve their care.
The drug, which went on sale in the 1950s, became the focus of one of the biggest medical tragedies of modern times when it was found to cause severe birth defects.
Estimates of its victims worldwide range from 10,000 to 20,000.
Sue Kent, 47, is one of 31 Welsh survivors of the drug scandal sharing in the extra £1.9m announced by First Minister Carwyn Jones yesterday.
Mrs Kent, who has raised two children and now works as a masseuse for Disability Wales using her feet, said: “The Government issued an apology, or rather a ‘statement of regret’, to thalidomide sufferers in January of this year.
“It was extremely welcome because for many years we were simply ignored and had to fight to be noticed.
“To be able to sit around the table with your First Minister to discuss matters is a sign that we are at last being taken seriously and we welcome it.
“Initially it was thought people like me who suffered as a result of exposure to the drug would not live very long.
“But we are, and a number of my friends who are sufferers now have severe problems with their hips and other parts of the body that need expensive treatment.
“My car, for instance, is 10 years old because it has had to be specially adapted at great expense.”
In Gorseinon yesterday, Mr Jones said: “You cannot get a perspective on the problems faced by thalidomide sufferers until you meet them.”
He said yesterday’s spending announcement was vitally important, adding: “You just have to spend where it’s important, you cannot simply cut right across the board, even when times are tough.”
Mr Jones said the £1.9m, which will be available from April, will be on top of £20m announced by the Department of Health for UK sufferers earlier this year. It will be distributed among survivors to help meet their health needs and minimise any further deterioration of their condition.
Children suffering the effects of the drug were born in the late 1950s and 1960s with deformed and stunted limbs after their mothers took the medicine, designed to control morning sickness.
Mr Jones added: “I believe addressing the ongoing needs of thalidomiders [as they refer to themselves] rests with the UK Government as it authorised the use of thalidomide.
“While survivors in Wales will have access to a share of the funding announced by the Department of Health, I wanted to provide additional funding to ensure that people affected by thalidomide in Wales receive the care and support they need.”
In January, the Government expressed its “sincere regret and deep sympathy” to the victims of the thalidomide scandal when Health Minister Mike O’Brien made the formal apology in an oral statement to MPs.
In May last year scientists from the University of Aberdeen said they had solved the “50-year puzzle” of why the drug caused limb defects.
The team found that a component of the drug prevents the growth of new blood vessels in developing embryos, stunting limb growth. Lead researcher Dr Neil Vargesson said the discovery could lead to a “safer” form of the drug which is still used to treat leprosy.
Publication of the research came a month after the European Commission granted an American company a licence to market it as a treatment for blood cancer.
Acting on a recommendation from the European Medical Evaluation Agency, the commission granted the licence to the Celgene Corporation, a US pharmaceutical company. This now owns thalidomide and sells the drug under the brand name Thalomid.
Thalidomide has also recently been suggested as a possible aid to treatment for prostate cancer.