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Thalidomide Babies Pictures

Thalidomide Babies Pictures

How it happened

THALIDOMIDE was first marketed to people as a sedative, or sleeping pill, in 1957 in West Germany, then under the name Contergan.

It started to be prescribed to pregnant women when it was found to help nausea and morning sickness.

Only later was the drug found to seriously harm the development of unborn babies and cause major birth defects, especially if it was taken in the first eight weeks of pregnancy.

The drug led to the arms and legs of babies being very short or imperfectly formed. Other side effects included deformed eyes, ears and hearts.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, 10,000 children were born with thalidomide-related disabilities worldwide. Around 40 per cent died at birth or very shortly after.

The drug was withdrawn in 1961 before the UK government issued a warning in


In the annals of modern medicine, it was a horror story of international scope: thousands of babies dead in the womb and at least 10,000 others in 46 countries born with severe deformities. Some of the children were missing limbs. Others had arms and legs that resembled a seal’s flippers. In many cases, eyes, ears and other organs and tissues failed to develop properly.

The cause, scientists discovered by late 1961, was thalidomide, a drug that, during four years of commercial sales in countries from Germany to Australia, was marketed to pregnant women as a miracle cure for morning sickness and insomnia.

The tragedy was largely averted in the United States, with much credit due to Frances Oldham Kelsey, a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, who raised concerns about thalidomide before its effects were conclusively known. For a critical 19-month period, she fastidiously blocked its approval while drug company officials maligned her as a bureaucratic nitpicker.

Dr. Kelsey, a physician and pharmacologist later lauded as a heroine of the federal workforce, died Aug. 7 at her daughter’s home in London, Ontario. She was 101. Her daughter, Christine Kelsey, confirmed her death but did not cite a specific cause.

For the survivors, decades of coping with stunted, twisted or missing limbs has meant greater wear and tear on remaining joints and muscles, and virtually guaranteed the premature onset of arthritis and chronic pain.

Many who managed to go out and work have already been forced into early retirement, while others who used to rely on their parents for everyday care, can no longer do so. Every year, more and more are becoming totally dependent on other family members, on social benefits or health insurance payouts - or on charity.

Which is why, on 26 November - 50 years on - we, the German survivors, will march, waddle, limp or roll in wheelchairs from the Brandenburg Gate to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin.

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