Thalidomide: could it happen again?

When you live long enough, you start to see the cycles of fashion, society, medicine, and more. While there’s nothing wrong with flares or beards re-emerging, there can be a certain feeling of “when will we learn?” in other matters.

This is certainly the case when we think about the drug that women took in the 1950s and 60s, in blind faith, that resulted in more than 10,000 birth defects.

Surprisingly, thalidomide is still in use today for a variety of conditions and, as Sarah Ferber, Associate Professor of History, University of Wollongong, asks, “What guarantee is there that the same thing can’t occur again today?”

Writing in The Conversation as part of a series on thalidomide, Ferber says, “To answer that question, it’s important first to acknowledge that the effects of the drug on survivors never ended. For them it’s not about recurrence; the thalidomide scandal is still happening. Survivors now experience the early onset of age-related conditions such as osteoarthritis, joint mobility issues and coronary heart disease.

“As one thalidomider in Germany, Fernandez Garcia, said ‘We’re living the second (thalidomide) tragedy; our survival … We are alive, but what is ‘life’ for us?'”

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But as the associate professor explains, thalidomide was hailed as a ‘wonder drug’ when it was developed, and the drugs potential for healing serious medical conditions mean it was never going to disappear forever.

Ferber says, “In 1964, just two years after the final withdrawal of thalidomide from the market in Japan, Israeli doctor Jacob Sheskin found thalidomide could treat a skin lesions caused by leprosy.

“Originally a treatment for non-life-threatening conditions such as sleeplessness, tension and morning sickness, thalidomide’s possible uses have now expanded to include several conditions including cancer of the bone marrow (multiple myeloma), lupus, and ulcers caused by AIDS.

“Today, doctors prescribe the drug with full knowledge of its potential harms, working with manufacturers and governments to ensure women of childbearing age either do not take the drug at all or do so having been informed of the need to avoid pregnancy.

Even so, in Brazil, where leprosy is endemic, between 1970 and 1996, there were 33 new cases of thalidomide-affected births. New cases have been identified a recently as 2007.”

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Thalidomide and the damage it caused paved the way for far more stringent drug testing and safety checks, including the effects of medications on unborn children, which prior to the scandal were largely ignored by medical trials.

That said, with the drug still in use, including in the US to treat HIV/AIDS, there is always a risk that it could happen, despite strict measures including a drug register.

Ferber says, “To date, there appear to have been no affected births in the US under these programs.

“But worldwide, the question surrounding thalidomide remains one of not whether, but when.”

What are your memories of the thalidomide scandal?