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Thalidomide Babies Now

Thalidomide Babies Now

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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What were the impairments?

According to the U.K.'s Ministry of Health, children could "suffer reduction deficiencies of the limbs, malformations of the eyes, ears and deafness, defects of the heart and kidneys and malformations of the alimentary system."

Phocomelia is the most severe impairment, the U.K.'s Thalidomide Society says, "a condition where the long bones of some or all limbs are misshapen and where the hands and feet, which can be either mostly fully-formed, malformed or rudimentary, arise almost on the trunk."

The Society lists a wide spectrum of limb disabilities caused by the drug.

"The drug harmed the developing foetus only if taken in the first three months of pregnancy," according to the Society.

CALL The Midwife fans should brace themselves – one of the new series’ storylines is so heart-breaking it left stars weeping on set.

The first episode, to air early next year, will see a baby born with deformities caused by the mum being prescribed anti-morning sickness drug thalidomide.

Of course the effects of the drug given to pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s were not known at the time — and the rest of the series will follow the horror of the affected child’s family and midwives as the truth emerges.

Writer Heidi Thomas says: “Series five is set in 1961, the year thalidomide was banned, so now it’s time for us to shine a light on the families this drug damaged so badly.

“I have cried at my desk, and we have wept on set. It is not an easy story to tell, and for that reason we are committed to telling it as carefully and as lovingly as we can.”

The drug was first prescribed to expectant mums in the UK in 1958, and about 2,000 babies were born with defects as a result, mainly missing or mis-formed limbs.

Half died within a few months of birth and others have had shortened life expectancy. There are only 400 still surviving, all now in their fifties.

Rosie Moriarty-Simmonds, now 53, is one of the survivors and was one of writer Heidi’s biggest inspirations for the BBC1 hit’s storyline.

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.

Why were some countries more affected by thalidomide than others?

In the United States, the thalidomide experience was very different from that in Europe. Fortunately Dr. Frances Kelsey of the US Food and Drug Administration was more alert and would not accept that the drug had been adequately tested for manufacture and distribution. As a result only about 20 thalidomide impaired babies were born in America and these were a result of the limited clinical trials that were carried out.

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