The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

October 22, 2013

Act of God or drug firms?

PHILADELPHIA — Debra Johnson saw it coming.

“Dear God. Not here, where everybody could hear,” she thought.

She was at a packed college basketball game, sitting alongside her great-niece, who had just learned to count.

“And she was holding my hand, which we do all the time,” Johnson, 54, recalled in a honeyed, Louisiana drawl. “I could see her counting her fingers, and then she would reach over and … count mine.”

And then it came.

“I have five fingers. … You have four?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why?”

After decades living with misshapen parts — thumbs fashioned from index fingers, an abnormally small forearm — Debra Johnson thinks she has the answer: thalidomide.

The scourge of birth defects from thalidomide in the 1950s and ’60s remains one of the worst pharmaceutical disasters ever.

Yet it was one that largely spared the United States, thanks in no small part to the vigilance of Food and Drug Administration officer Frances Kelsey, who balked at approving the drug for sale here.

About 10,000 babies suffered horrible malformations because their mothers used the sedative while pregnant to treat morning sickness, anxiety, or insomnia. But only about 40 were born in this country.

So goes the generally accepted narrative.

Now, in 10 federal lawsuits pending in Philadelphia, Johnson and 48 other plaintiffs have turned that narrative on its head.

They’ve accused a group of drug firms of concealing for more than a half-century an unknown number of thalidomide babies born Stateside.

Those babies, the lawsuits claim, were born to pregnant women given thalidomide from companies that had cause to suspect the drug could harm a fetus and had not adequately tested it.

That hidden generation of American thalidomide victims — long told their injuries were simply congenital or an act of God — could number in the hundreds, even thousands, say lawyers at Hagens Berman, a Seattle firm representing the plaintiffs.

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