Thalidomide – 1959-1969

Images of the effects of Thalidomide are firmly etched into the public consciousness. What was originally seen as a safe treatment for morning sickness quickly became one of the worst tragedies in medical history, as thousands of children were born without limbs and with damaged vital organs.

Thalidomide was discovered by chance in 1954, by the small yet ambitious German firm Chemie Grunenthal while trying to create new antibiotics. The firm had a history of releasing new drugs onto the market without proper testing and when no antibiotic qualities were found they tried it on people with epilepsy. Again no curative effects were found, but patient reports of particularly sound sleep led to the identification of the drug’s sedative properties. Thalidomide had finally found its lucrative market. If they had truly found a safe alternative to the highly toxic barbiturates available at the time, then scientific prizes as well as great remuneration awaited them.

Heralded by a huge marketing campaign, Thalidomide was launched in Germany, under the name of Contergan, as a safe sedative. It was so benign, argued the manufacturers, that accidental overdoses by small children had resulted in no harm. Distillers, a UK whisky maker with only marginal experience in pharmaceuticals, became interested. They launched the drug in Britain under the name of Distaval in April 1958. In the summer of 1958 the German company announced that Thalidomide was safe for use by expectant mothers to combat morning sickness. Distillers simply accepted this as true and it was prescribed accordingly. Even when evidence of nerve damage began to surface, the drug was still marketed as safe.

Work by scientists in Australia and Germany proved the link between Thalidomide and birth defects and the drug was withdrawn in December 1961 – but not before more than 10,000 children had been born with deformities.

When: Most cases date from 1959-1961.

Where: Practically worldwide. Germany and the UK had a high number of cases due to the drug’s early release. Japan was badly affected as the drug was made available over the counter. Thalidomide was never given full approval in the USA, resulting in comparatively few cases there.

Toll: More than 10,000 people were affected.

You should know: Many victims of Thalidomide have gone on to lead long and fulfilling lives. Most notably Nicaraguan guitarist Tony Melendez and Mat Fraser, a British rock musician-turned-actor.

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