Imagine you’re in the early stages of pregnancy and experiencing morning sickness and nausea that, well, doesn’t restrict itself to pre-noon. At any time, any place, you could be taken short. Find an empty place (pull the car over if you need to), tell your small children you’ll be right with them, and proceed to be very sick indeed.
Not fun. For some people, as well, first-trimester nausea lasts throughout the pregnancy. One of the most joyous things about birth is that one finally feels healthy.
Now, imagine a medication that could make the nausea vanish. No more hot saliva, frantic searching, upchucking. No more apologies for ruining a neighbor’s shrubs. Clear sailing for as long as needed.
Sounds good, right?
That’s what physicians and lay people thought decades ago, when a little pill manufactured in Germany became, for some months, popular as a nausea preventive in pregnancy. Until the babies of thousands of women who took the pill began to be born.
Babies who lacked hands and feet. Who had flippers for arms. Babies whose bodies had been deformed by the very pill that prevented their mothers’ vomiting.
That was thalidomide.
A pause here to acknowledge and honor the woman who prevented thalidomide from entering the US. Born in 1914 and still living, Frances Oldham Kelsey, PhD, MD, worked at the FDA at the time as a pharmacologist. She had grave reservations about thalidomide because the research showed a nervous system side effect. Despite intense pressure by the manufacturer to approve the drug, Dr. Kelsey refused to sanction it for the American market. Thanks to Dr. Kelsey’s determination, the only American children abused by thalidomide were those whose mothers bought the drug while overseas.
Many thalidomide-affected children were turned over to orphanages right after birth. Their shocked parents –there was little counseling or emotional support in the 1960s – simply felt they could not handle raising a child with such profound bodily defects. Many children died before they turned one year old. Some were adopted by other families. Some stayed in orphanages until they were grown.
Globally, the numbers were huge. There were 12,000 children affected by thalidomide.
Why write about this now? Because it is only now, 50 years later, that Gruenenthal, the manufacturer of the poison thalidomide, is making an apology. Harald Stock, its CEO, acknowledged that the firm had remained silent. The Independent reports that, “He said the company had failed to reach out to the victims and their mothers over the past 50 years.”
A half-century of silence. Why now? Why even speak up now?
Perhaps it’s that finally, Gruenenthal feels it can take responsibility. Perhaps Herr Stock is a forward-thinking corporate executive.
Perhaps it’s because, in Australia, thalidomide survivors – legless, armless, but with abilities and brains – are, at last, filing suit in courts of law.