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Thalidomide Adults

Thalidomide Adults

What is thalidomide?

Thalidomide was first marketed in West Germany in 1957 by the Chemie Grunenthal company. The company promoted it as effective against a number of conditions but its primary use was as a sedative.

Under the brand name Contergan, Grunenthal promoted the "absolute non-toxicity" and "safeness" of the drug.

Thalidomide was soon given to pregnant women for nausea and morning sickness. In some countries it could be purchased without a prescription.

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Who took thalidomide?

Thalidomide was promoted as a ‘wonder drug’ to treat a range of conditions including headaches, insomnia and depression. It was popular because it was atoxic and so it was impossible to overdose on it. However, long term use led to irreversible peripheral neuritis in a large number of patients. It was then remarketed as a short-term treatment for pregnant women, typically in the first three months of their pregnancy, to combat morning sickness or insomnia although it was also prescribed for bronchitis and influenza amongst other things. It also appeared in cough medicines for children and so often it stayed in medicine cabinets long after its withdrawal from the market.

Which other conditions resemble thalidomide-induced impairments?

Babies have been born with impairments similar to those caused by thalidomide throughout history. For example, genetic conditions such as TAR syndrome and Holt-Oram syndrome both affect the upper limbs in a way similar to thalidomide. Poland’s syndrome affects the hands and Talipes Equinovarus affects the foot and ankles. Congenital dysmelia can also affect all the limbs and can present as very similar to thalidomide impairments

When was Thalidomide withdrawn?

Recent evidence shows that Chemie Grünenthal ignored warnings about the connection between thalidomide and babies being born with limb and other impairments. In 1961, Australian doctor William McBride, published a letter in The Lancet making this connection public knowledge. Following this and reports of what amounted to an epidemic of births of malformed babies and side effects of peripheral neuritis in adults in Germany,  Chemie Grünenthal reluctantly withdrew the drug in November 1961 and Distillers followed suit in the December of that year.

However, a UK Government warning was not issued until May 1962 but, even then, the drug was also present in a number of other medications whose labelling did not use the word ‘Thalidomide’. Consequently at least 20 children were born during and after September 1962 showing typical thalidomide impairments more than nine months after Distaval was withdrawn.

When was thalidomide withdrawn?

The first thalidomide-affected baby was born in 1956, to a Grunenthal employee in West Germany, before the drug was marketed.

By 1961, Australian obstetrician William McBride had informed the Australian distributor that he had evidence thalidomide could lead to malformed babies and published a letter in the Lancet, a leading medical publication.

There was also increasing evidence in Germany in 1961 that thalidomide was responsible for a spike in newborns' limb malformations.

By October, Grunenthal had internal evidence their drug was responsible for the malformations but continued to tell doctors thalidomide was safe.


The two most frequently reported groups of health problems were musculoskeletal and mental health conditions. There was little discussion about the social consequences of secondary damage being layered onto lifelong impairments or of the implications of co-morbidities. Future research needs a stronger connection to more social models of disability and critical disability studies.

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