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Thalidomide Babies 1960'S

Thalidomide Babies 1960's


Thalidomide first entered the German market in 1957 as an over-the-counter remedy, based on the maker’s safety claims. They advertised their product as “completely safe” for everyone, including mother and child, “even during pregnancy,” as its developers “could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat.” By 1960, thalidomide was marketed in 46 countries, with sales nearly matching those of aspirin.

Around this time, Australian obstetrician Dr. William McBride discovered that the drug also alleviated morning sickness. He started recommending this off-label use of the drug to his pregnant patients, setting a worldwide trend. Prescribing drugs for off-label purposes, or purposes other than those for which the drug was approved, is still a common practice in many countries today, including the U.S. In many cases, these off-label prescriptions are very effective, such as prescribing depression medication to treat chronic pain.

However, this practice can also lead to a more prevalent occurrence of unanticipated, and often serious, adverse drug reactions. In 1961, McBride began to associate this so-called harmless compound with severe birth defects in the babies he delivered. The drug interfered with the babies' normal development, causing many of them to be born with phocomelia, resulting in shortened, absent, or flipper-like limbs. A German newspaper soon reported 161 babies were adversely affected by thalidomide, leading the makers of the drug—who had ignored reports of the birth defects associated with the it—to finally stop distribution within Germany. Other countries followed suit and, by March of 1962, the drug was banned in most countries where it was previously sold.

In July of 1962, president John F. Kennedy and the American press began praising their heroine, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey, who prevented the drug’s approval within the United States despite pressure from the pharmaceutical company and FDA supervisors. Kelsey felt the application for thalidomide contained incomplete and insufficient data on its safety and effectiveness. Among her concerns was the lack of data indicating whether the drug could cross the placenta, which provides nourishment to a developing fetus.

She was also concerned that there were not yet any results available from U.S. clinical trials of the drug. Even if these data where available, however, they may not have been entirely reliable. At the time, clinical trials did not require FDA approval, nor were they subject to oversight. The “clinical trials” of thalidomide involved distributing more than two and a half million tablets of thalidomide to approximately 20,000 patients across the nation—approximately 3,760 women of childbearing age, at least 207 of whom were pregnant. More than one thousand physicians participated in these trials, but few tracked their patients after dispensing the drug.

The tragedy surrounding thalidomide and Kelsey’s wise refusal to approve the drug helped motivate profound changes in the FDA. By passing the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments Act in 1962, legislators tightened restrictions surrounding the surveillance and approval process for drugs to be sold in the U.S., requiring that manufacturers prove they are both safe and effective before they are marketed. Now, drug approval can take between eight and twelve years, involving animal testing and tightly regulated human clinical trials.

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.

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