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  • Heiley Tai

Remembering Thalidomide

Very rarely are new drugs and therapeutics sold legally in the U.S. nowadays, unless they undergo a lengthy FDA approval process, oftentimes consisting of decades’ worth of rigorous testing. This, however, hasn’t always been the case. Many of the regulatory agencies and processes that exist today are direct results of disasters like the thalidomide tragedy that occurred in the 1950s and 60s, during which thousands of infants were born with, among other things, physical malformations, internal organ damage, or congenital heart disease as a result of the mothers being prescribed the drug thalidomide. Thalidomide, used today to treat multiple myeloma and leprosy, was previously prescribed to pregnant women to aid with nausea and other symptoms. It is now a known teratogen—a substance that, if a pregnant woman is exposed to, can interfere with normal fetal development and lead to congenital disorders.[1]

Thalidomide, originating from the German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünenthal (now known as just Grünenthal), was distributed and sold in 46 countries, having been marketed as completely safe.[2] Despite its being advertised as a drug to alleviate the symptoms of morning sickness, it had been approved in Germany without any clinical trials involving pregnant women.[3] Luckily, the application for sale of thalidomide in the U.S. was denied FDA approval thanks to the work of Dr. Frances Kelly,[4] but that doesn’t mean that Americans weren’t affected. Drug companies Smith, Kline & French (now known as GlaxoSmithKline), and Richardson-Merrell (now known as Sanofi) conducted poorly-documented clinical trials in the U.S. with the aim of hurriedly pushing the drug into the market for sale. None of the companies were transparent in their intentions when distributing thalidomide to doctors; Richardson-Merrell even went as far as to encourage doctors to not keep track of which patients took thalidomide during the trial.[5]

There are people alive today who are still dealing with the consequences of thalidomide. Because it often results in physical malformations, those affected report struggling to find and keep jobs. They face everyday mobility difficulties and have to fight tooth-and-nail in lawsuits against giant corporations to receive even the slightest compensation. Furthermore, their expenses tend to be much higher, as electric wheelchairs, adapted vehicles, and specialized medical devices to assist with sensory deficits don’t come cheap.[6]

The thalidomide tragedy remains relevant today for a multitude of reasons—the primary one being that it was entirely preventable, which speaks to the idea that marginalization can be, and oftentimes is, induced or manufactured. This story highlights the role of the pharmaceutical industry in “creating” bodies of people who are disadvantaged in medicine and healthcare. Of course, the responsibility doesn’t fall exclusively on drug makers who peddle misleading or deceptive narratives to boost sales, but also governing bodies who fail to do their due diligence and approve questionable substances for mass-use. Furthermore, if the administration of a drug is neither well documented nor transparent—to the point where mothers don’t even recall being prescribed thalidomide—then the affected children aren’t in a position to receive justice, and the rest of us aren’t in a position to remember such injustices.

Edited by: Harrison Pham

Graphic Designed by: Harris Upchurch










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