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German drug firm makes first apology for thalidomide

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A bronze statue by artist Bonifatius Stirnberg is on display in Stolberg, Germany symbolizing a child born without limbs because of thalidomide. (AP)

The German manufacturer of a notorious drug that caused thousands of babies to be born with shortened arms and legs, or no limbs at all, issued its first ever apology Friday - 50 years after pulling the drug off the market.

Gruenenthal Group's chief executive said the company wanted to apologize to mothers who took the drug during the 1950s and 1960s and to their children who suffered congenital birth defects as a result.

"We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being," said Harald Stock. "We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us."

Stock spoke in the west German city of Stolberg, where the company is based, during the unveiling of a bronze statue symbolizing a child born without limbs because of thalidomide.

The drug, which was sold under the brand name Contergan in Germany, was given to pregnant women to combat morning sickness but led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. Thalidomide was never approved for sale in the United States.

Gruenenthal settled a lawsuit in Germany in 1972 - 11 years after stopping sales of the drug - and voiced its regret to the victims. But for decades the company refused to admit liability, saying it had conducted all necessary clinical trial required at the time.

Stock reiterated that position Friday, insisting that "the suffering that occurred with Contergan 50 years ago happened in a world that is completely different from today" and the pharmaceutical industry had learned a valuable lesson from the incident.

"When it developed Contergan Gruenenthal acted on the basis of the available scientific knowledge at the time and met all the industry standards for the testing of new drugs that were known in the 1950s and 1960s," he said.

A German victims group rejected the company's apology as too little, too late.

"The apology as such doesn't help us deal with our everyday life," said Ilonka Stebritz, a spokeswoman for the Association of Contergan Victims. "What we need are other things."

Stebritz said that the 1972 settlement in Germany led to the creation of a (EURO)150 million fund for some 3,000 German victims, but that with a normal life expectancy of 85 years the money wasn't enough. In many other countries victims are still waiting for compensation from Gruenenthal or its local distributors.

Thalidomide is still sold today, but as a treatment for multiple myeloma and leprosy.