In the late 1960s, when we were students, we were told to read The Sunday Times of London to improve our English. It was there that I came across the word ‘thalidomide’ for the first time and read about the scandal.

The newspaper’s editor, Harold Evans had sent his journalists to investigate the story of the medication promoted against anxiety, sleeplessness and morning sickness in Europe and the US in the late 1950s and early 1960s and then abruptly removed when concerns arose that it could cause serious birth defects.

The newspaper ran the story for weeks against all odds. The pharmaceutical industry condemned it as irresponsible “scaremongering”. It also upset established medical opinion that nothing could pass across the placenta to harm a foetus.

Thalidomide was first developed in Germany to combat nerve gas during World War II and was tested on Nazi concentration camp prisoners. After the war, the pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal, run by a former Nazi in the Rhineland, obtained the patent and marketed it under the brand name of Contergan.

In 2016, Evans recounted how this story showed “just how hard it is to get to the truth”. He pushed his reporters to dig deeper about the thousands of malformed and stillborn babies. What kept him going was his subversive attitude: “When all authority is against you, well, then you must be right!”

When I read the reports about the thalidomide babies about 55 years ago in my small sheltered village, all the mothers gave birth at home with the help of midwives. Doctors were rarely involved even during pregnancy. I thought how lucky we were that the Thalidomide tragedy happened far away from Malta.

It was only in 2017 that I was rudely awakened from this world of make-believe when a certain Anatole Baldacchino came to see me and told me about his research on thalidomide babies. I asked: why this interest in a story that happened long ago and far away? He put his left hand on the table and I saw that the fingers were shorter than the fingers on his right hand. He told me that he was a thalidomide baby. When he was six years old his mother had told him she had taken Thalidomide when she was pregnant with him.

He told me he wanted to discover what happened in Malta to people like him. A few days later, I brought up the subject of Maltese Thalidomide babies in parliament and how their tragedy should not continue to be covered up. After my speech, a former minister approached me and told me that his sister was also a thalidomide baby and she was stillborn.

Massive cover-up

Baldacchino set about doggedly answering these questions: What led to the introduction of thalidomide in Malta? What factors led to the delay in banning Thalidomide from circulation in Malta? Why did its continued use and the catastrophic human repercussions it left remain hidden by officialdom in Malta?

His answers are now in his book The Malta Thalidomide Affair.

I have been told by a local gynaecologist that this morning sickness medicine was considered so safe that doctors even prescribed it to their wives and they also had malformed babies.

Baldacchino tells us that we have a number of thalidomiders with malformations born in Malta in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1958 and 1962, we had more than 800 stillborn babies when Maltese mothers were being administered this drug.

Mount Carmel Mental Hospital patients who were given the drug for anxiety, experienced nerve damage even during short-term use.

In his foreword to the book, professor John Chircop locates this scandal within the context of the British Empire: “From 1959 to 1961, clinical trials with thalidomide were conducted in Malta, the West Indies and Australia.

Without any official authorisation, distillers decided to use the local population for their trials merely through their supremacist colonial assumption that no such approval from local authorities was required as Malta was still a de facto British crown colony.”

Maltese governments sought to deviate attention, employing a strategy of ‘sweeping under the carpet’ the whole issue

Chircop concludes “that the ‘Thalidomide Affair’ was a first clear failure of the local governing political class, and the medico-pharmaceutical bodies, to safeguard the health of the population… Maltese governments sought to deviate attention, employing a strategy of ‘sweeping under the carpet’ the whole issue… This was also, regrettably, taken over by modern historiography – including contemporary medical histories – which totally avoided mentioning this human tragedy”.

Chircop commends Baldacchino’s research for disclosing “a series of collusions between exponents of colonial rule, Maltese politicians and professional bodies who, with the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, kept an unfailing silence…”

Chircop says we have important lessons to learn from this human tragedy.

Baldacchino recounts how the colonial government that ruled Malta between 1958 and 1962 rushed to protect from any liabilities the doctors prescribing the drug while it was being tested on local mothers. The drug was withdrawn in several countries like Canada and the US in 1961. It could still be imported and sold in Malta until 1968.

Even after Malta regained home rule in 1962, the Nationalist government insisted that there was no need to stop the supply of this drug.

In September 1962, Labour opposition leader Dom Mintoff quoted in parliament statistics about deformed thalidomide babies in Germany and the UK. He urged the prohibition of the drug, proposed prison sentences for defaulters and urged the government to collect existing supplies and destroy them.

The refusal of the government to act meant that the drug continued to be tested on mental health patients and pregnant women. It also led to more infant mortalities and deformities.

Seven years were to pass before this medicine was included in the dangerous drugs’ list. Instead of stopping this drug, the Nationalist government stopped publishing the statistics of infant mortality in Malta between 1962 and 1968. It also refused to carry out a census of persons with physical disabilities in Malta and Gozo.

Evarist Bartolo is a former Labour education and foreign minister.

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