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Thalidomide Defects

Thalidomide Defects

Recognition Of Birth Defects Caused By Thalidomide

Thalidomide is a teratogenic drug, meaning that when taken while pregnant, it can have terrible impacts on fetal development and cause irreversible damages.

Phocomelia, a limb atrophy, is the most common malformation linked to thalidomide, but all phocomelia cases aren’t caused by thalidomide. However, due to the notoriety of the thalidomide tragedy, many people have started to associate it exclusively with thalidomide. As a matter of fact, we often hear that persons with phocomelia are “like thalidomiders”, which gives the wrong impression that thalidomide is always involved.

Before considering thalidomide to be the cause of a malformation, regardless of the birth dates involved, people should consider other potential conditions. In fact, upon further investigation, we realize that many conditions have been mistakenly attributed to the drug. In some cases, certain experts might be able to tell the difference, but in others, it can be really hard.

The identification of birth defects attributable to thalidomide was a painful and confusing process. Some countries and pharmaceuticals have done better than others, but many of them could not verify that each petitioner was a true thalidomide victim.

One drug, many effects

The drug was taken off shelves in Australia in 1961 and most other countries around the same time.

Part of the reason it took so long for the link between the drug and the defects to become apparent was because of the separation between the psychiatrists prescribing the medication and the paediatricians treating the babies, as well as the time lag between exposure to the drug in the first trimester of pregnancy and the affected baby being born, according to medical historian Arthur Daemmrich.

Two containers of 12 x 100 mg Distaval Forte, containing 100 mg of thalidomide per tablet.

Distaval Forte contained 100 mg of thalidomide per tablet. (Getty Images: SSPL)

Although the science is still not completely clear, it's thought the drug causes birth defects by inhibiting the development of new blood vessels at a crucial stage in pregnancy.

It took researchers many years to form this theory, because thalidomide is broken down into more than 100 potentially defect-causing components in the liver, which needed to be studied.

Further complicating the matter was that fact that common lab animals like rats and mice are not affected by the drug as severely as humans.

Wearing out fast'

"These (thalidomide survivors) are people who might be inside bodies which are 50 years old but in fact in terms of our actual age, the age of our muscular-skeletal systems, we're probably 20 years ahead of that.

"In our bodies we are really in our late 60s or 70s. And we are wearing out fast."

Although the £20m fund for thalidomide survivors might sound "reasonably large", Mr Adams-Spink, of London, said: "In terms of accident compensation they are fairly minimal."

"That's why we have had to keep going back, and thank goodness Diageo act as a very responsible corporation and recognise the legacy of Distillers and recognise that they have a responsibility to this group of people.

"I hope that we can use some of the funds that have been given to us to enable a soft landing into old age.

"This could help make sure we have the infrastructure and care and support around us that we need.

"And maybe even move to sunnier climes, so that our bones don't ache so much and so we can enjoy our autumn years without being wracked in pain or confined to the house."

Last year, the creator of Thalidomide, German-based Gruenenthal issued its first apology in 50 years for the impact the drug had on babies.

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