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Thalidomide Tragedy: Australia Apologises For Drug That Caused Birth Defects, Stillbirths, Miscarriages

Thalidomide Tragedy: Australia Apologises For Drug That Caused Birth Defects, Stillbirths, Miscarriages
Representational image/Freepik

The thalidomide tragedy marked a turning point in toxicity testing, prompting the US and international regulatory agencies to develop "systematic toxicity testing protocols".

Written by Prerna Mittra |Updated : November 30, 2023 2:01 PM IST

On the occasion of the 62nd anniversary of the drug being withdrawn from sale in the country, Australia made a public apology to the survivors of the dangerous 'morning sickness drug' thalidomide, who were present in the parliament's public gallery to receive it. According to a report in The Independent, survivors of the drug -- that was sold under the brand names 'Contergan' and 'Distaval', and was available in 46 countries -- with limb deformities and no limbs were present in the House of Representatives gallery to listen to prime minister Anthony Albanese make an apology. Back when it was in circulation, the infamous drug had caused stillbirths, miscarriages and birth defects.

"Today, on behalf of the people of Australia, our government and this parliament offers a full unreserved and overdue apology to all thalidomide survivors, their families, loved ones, and carers. This apology takes in one of the darkest chapters in Australia's medical history," Albanese was quoted as saying.

What was the thalidomide tragedy?

According to news-medical.net, thalidomide was first developed by Swiss pharmaceutical company CIBA in the early 1950s. It was subsequently introduced as Contergan by Chemi Grunenthal. The drug was advertised as a sedative at first, allowing the taker to "undergo a deep sleep in the absence of a hangover and with a reduced risk of developing drug dependency". Back then, only basic testing was done and the medicine did not seem to have any toxic effects on human beings. It was not analysed for any potentially dangerous 'teratogenic' effects, which means that it was not tested for an agent that may cause foetal abnormalities during pregnancy.

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The controversy

After it was released in the market, thalidomide became popular as a 'morning sickness remedy' for pregnant women due to its 'antiemetic effects'. An affordable drug, it could be obtained without a prescription. It began to be widely used in Japan, Australia and Europe, and medical practitioners began to notice congenital mutations in the children of women who had taken thalidomide during pregnancy, according to news-medical.net. Prior to that, many doctors had assured pregnant women the drug was safe for use.

The abnormalities

Per news-medical.net, for patients around the world, a range of abnormalities was noted:

  • Phocoemelia, which is a congenital deformity where the hands and feet are bound to the child's trunk; are absent; or grossly underdeveloped
  • Disfigurements of the ear
  • Ocular abnormalities
  • Facial palsies
  • Internal organ damage
  • Congenital heart disease

"There was no system for properly evaluating the safety of medicines, and the terrible cruelty of thalidomide is that far from being safe, just one dose was enough to cause devastating harm," Albanese further said in his apology.

Per the Independent report, one Trish Jackson, who has had heart and lung problems, along with limb deformities caused by her mother taking the drug while she was pregnant, welcomed the apology. She told Australian Broadcasting Corp: "All those years of... banging our heads against brick walls of politicians have finally paid off."

According to the National Library of Medicine, the thalidomide tragedy marked a turning point in toxicity testing, prompting the US and international regulatory agencies to develop "systematic toxicity testing protocols". Since the U.S Food and Drug Administration did not license the use of thalidomide, no congenital disabilities were reported in the country.