I’ve started this post about a dozen times, because my particular bias keeps getting in my way. So I’ll just let you know up front that I have issues with pharmaceutical companies. I understand that companies should be paid for the work that they do to develop new drugs. But I also don’t think that people who can’t afford a life-saving drug should die.
But this is about one particular drug. I was born in March of 1963 and just barely escaped the possibility that my mother could have taken the drug thalidomide when she was pregnant with me. Released by the German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal in 1957, this over-the-counter drug was available without prescription in 46 countries. Although not created for that purpose, it turns out that thalidomide eased the morning sickness many pregnant women suffer.
Not long after the release of this drug, thousands of babies were born with a host of physical and mental problems, including phocomelia, malformed or missing limbs. Less than half survived. There were also a large number of miscarriages, but those weren’t tracked well enough for us to get a truly accurate reading on the damage done by thalidomide.
Apparently scientists at the time didn’t believe that medications taken by the mother could pass to the fetus, but finally someone made the connection and thalidomide was removed from the market in 1961 and 1962, different times in different countries. Remember, we didn’t have the global information network that is now available, although I’ll get back to that point later.
Known as “Thalidomide babies” or “thalidomiders”, those who survived have formed support groups, partly for emotional support, and partly to get compensation from either the drug companies or the countries involved. I’m not sure when I first heard about the effects of thalidomide, but I remember being incredibly interested because they were not much older than me. It also gave me some perspective on my live, allowing me to see the difference between petty annoyances and more significant problems in life.
But thalidomide is not just history. What I didn’t know until recently was that there are whole new generations of thalidomide babies. This drug has been used since the late 1960s as a very effective treatment for leprosy, mostly in Brazil. Despite controls put in place in 1994 to keep thalidomide out of the hands of women who may be or who may become pregnant, those controls don’t necessarily work with the poor and the poorly educated. Our global information network is useless to those unable to access it. Between 2005 and 2010, 5.8 million thalidomide pills have been distributed and there have been at least 100 cases of thalidomide babies.
So we have a drug that does both great good and great harm. Would it have already been pulled from the market if the current victims were not poor and, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the “first world”? Do you think it should be pulled from the market? Who gets to decide?
***For a great 12 minute video, The Shadow of Thalidomide, a RetroReport by The New York Times, please click here.