Sodium Valproate Scandal

The Sunday Times

Sodium valproate is an anti-epileptic that has been prescribed to women of childbearing age for more than four decades - despite knowledge when it was first licensed that it could damage unborn babies.

This has been a slow-burn scandal that has left a generation of UK children permanently disabled and needing life-long care. Estimates suggest 20,000 could have been affected.

Health editor Shaun Lintern met with families affected two years after the publication of a government inquiry in 2020. Despite recommendations they receive financial redress to help provide care for their children, the families have received nothing.

Shaun recognised this for what it was - a rank injustice of the worst kind on a scale even worse than the thalidomide disaster. He investigated the full history of the drug and what was known and travelled the country meeting families and interviewing them to get the real human story of this medical disaster. What he learned was that this was far from over and was in fact continuing with women still being denied key information and warnings and even the medicines regulator admitted six babies a week are still being born after exposure to the drug.

This resulted in what families themselves described as “the definitive sodium valproate” story. Shaun only joined The Sunday Times as health editor in December 2001 and this was his first big project resulting in a front page splash and double page spread. The story was followed by all other national media and broadcasters and saw families from the story and Shaun himself interviewed in the days following publication. The Sunday Times wrote a powerful leader column calling on ministers to back financial support for the families - something it has continued to campaign for since. Since the first story Shaun has used tragic human stories to expose how some families can’t even bring a negligence claim against the NHS and are struggling financially - one couple had to sell their home.

He has earned the trust of experts and clinicians who have leaked key details from a fresh inquiry into the use of valproate - started after the initial story - which has led to fresh concerns about the drugs transgenerational effect and impact on men which had previously been downplayed. He has won support from the health select committee which is also carrying out an inquiry and following publication of the first story there have been a number of questions raised in Parliament by MPs including one to the Prime Minister which cited The Sunday Times and the issue of families being denied access to ministers. A meeting was subsequently arranged.

The government has now said it is re-considering financial redress for families having previously said no to the idea.

Shaun is continuing to pursue the story and is currently investigating the use of valproate in far more patients than publicly admitted by the NHS; the legal actions against manufacturer Sanofi and the ongoing failure of pharmacists and doctors to warn women.