Thalidomide was developed as an anti-convulsive drug by a West German pharmaceutical company in the 1950s. After it was found to have calming effects like a tranquilizer, it was marketed as a sleeping aid; one that was even safe for pregnant women. Soon-to-be mothers also discovered that it aided in preventing morning sickness, so it became popular among them. Thalidomide had a reputation for being a miracle drug, which amplified its general use. What happened in the years after its general release was shocking: Thousands of babies from across the world were born with missing limbs, facial abnormalities, and bowel complications. One of the most shameful scandals in medical history was the result.
It took several years for many doctors to start making the connection between the drug and the odd cases that they were seeing with babies. The type and severity of deformities exhibited in a child depended on when his or her mother took the drug during pregnancy. Early stages of fetal development are critical as they form the basis for the nervous system, major organs, and skeleton. Germany and the United Kingdom suffered the brunt of the defects. Worldwide, at least 100,000 died before birth. Of the overall 10,000 babies born with abnormalities caused by the drug, only forty percent saw their first birthday.
The most surprising aspect of the thalidomide tragedy was the fact that the drug was actually tested on animals in clinical trials before it was approved for use. However, the tests at the time did not place any emphasis on how chemical compounds in pills affected the development of fetuses. The drug was initially not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. Scientists found unacceptable results from human trials, including nerve damage in the extremities of users. Decades later, researchers even tried to duplicate the gene-altering effects in other animal species, but were unsuccessful in seeing the same effects that took place in human fetuses.
Accusations were filed against the German manufacturer, Chemie Grünenthal. The claims maintained that the company tried to refute the reports of devastating side effects in order to spare the company costly embarrassment. Because of this negligence, the drug was allowed to persist for years in many countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, and several others. After a lengthy and arduous criminal trial, courts ordered Grünenthal and their UK subsidiary to pay reparations to thalidomide survivors, some of whom are still living today. For instance, there are 456 victims living in the United Kingdom.
Money cannot make up for the many years of stigma that the thalidomide survivors faced. With very noticeable physical deformities, they cannot hide their disabilities. Potential employers and romantic interests shun them. Many suffer from lifelong debilitative maladies that reduce their quality of life, such as cognitive issues, heart problems, and mobility limitations.
The only positive result to come from this terrible occurrence is that it forced a total overhaul on pharmaceutical research. More stringent processes were put in place to ensure drug safety at all biological levels; even how drugs would affect a person’s gametes before pregnancy. The debate rages on even today, as some researchers feel the delays are keeping lifesaving, breakthrough drugs from reaching the market in an acceptable time frame. Yet those that lived during the thalidomide tragedy know the value in proceeding with caution when it comes to human lives.