Wednesday, October 26, 2016

THALIDOMIDE BABIES: A SAD FOCUS ON CALL THE MIDWIFE

Warning: This post includes information about babies born with severe defects because of thalidomide. I've also included photos of thalidomide victims. If this information and/or the photographs will upset you, then I encourage you not to read my blog today.





Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

During the most recent season of Call the Midwife (Season Five), the healthcare workers of Poplar face a series of traumatic events during 1961. Some babies are born with "flippers" instead of limbs, and some have even more serious birth defects.



Sister Julienne is appalled when she's sent to work in a hospital for a short time. A doctor delivers a baby only to exclaim in disgust that it's another "monster." In spite of Sister Julienne's attempts to save the child, he––or she, the genitalia does not provide a clear indication of gender––is placed naked, next to an open window during cold weather. Sister Julienne is informed that it would be for the best if the infant simply slipped away. The parents are then told that their child died.

Dr. Turner finds a link between the birth defects and the thalidomide given to pregnant women to ease their morning sickness.



I had heard of "thalidomide babies" before, so I set out to do some research. A documentary on Netflix Streaming provided me with the information I needed. It's called Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and The Last Nazi War Crime (2014, Available on DVD, and Available Online at https://goo.gl/A9NioB).

I don't want to go into all the details I learned from the documentary, especially the association with Nazis, because you might want to watch it yourself. It's very well made. But here are a few facts about "thalidomide babies":

  • By 1960, sales of thalidomide were on par with aspirin in some European countries. 
  • The babies' "flippers" were often amputated so the children could be fitted with prosthetic devices.
  • About ten thousand cases of deformities were reported around the world. Of these, approximately fifty percent of the children survived.
  • The FDA refused to grant approval for the drug, but it was distributed for testing and caused deformities in some babies in the U.S.
  • Most countries banned thalidomide by 1962.
  • Survivors have brought lawsuits against the company that created and marketed the drug. The cost of raising a disabled child is substantial, as is the cost of living as a disabled adult.
Thalidomide: The Fifty Year Fight tells us that "the severity and location of the deformities depended on how many days into the pregnancy the mother was; thalidomide taken on the 20th day of pregnancy caused central brain damage, day 21 would damage the eyes, day 22 the ears and face, day 24 the arms, and leg damage would occur if taken up to day 28. Thalidomide did not damage the fetus if taken after 42 days gestation."

The sad story of thalidomide makes for worthwhile learning. Perhaps it will lead us to question the side effects of the medications we receive, and to recognize that pharmaceutical companies don't exist to serve us.  

They are companies that seek to make billions of dollars.


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug




Update: I apologize for using photos of thalidomide survivors without permission. I did a Google images search of "thalidomide" and found photos that didn't appear to be copyrighted or have any attribution. I should have done more research. A thalidomide survivor tweeted me that I should not have used the photos. I appreciate her kindness for approaching me without anger.




49 comments:

  1. It was really sad to see these babies. God has to give them strength to survive their life...

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    1. Whatever our conditions, we need God-given strength to survive life.

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  2. This is such a tragic story. We know first hand that some medicine will do you great harm.
    R

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    1. That's why we see so many class-action lawsuits against drug companies.

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  3. I had heard about thalidomide babies. How awful for the moms who took the drug and later found out what it did. I was born in 1960 and I'm sure glad my mom didn't take that drug!

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    1. In the U.S., the drug was given out only for testing purposes. It was not prescribed on a widespread basis.

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  4. Having grown up in the 60's I was aware of thalidomide babies. The drug was used to prevent the severe nausea and vomiting some pregnant women experience. Of late there have been some small tests done using thalidomide on young children with severe cases of Crohn's which have been successful in eliminating the disease. So it could, in time, be redeemed.

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    1. Yes, I read some information about current testing. Used in a different way, thalidomide can be a good drug.

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  5. So, so sad. It kills me when I hear about modern technologies or treatments that are supposed to improve pregnancy or birth. Women were having children long before our age, and the strongest ones tend to be the ones who get there without intervention.

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    1. I've appreciated the information about the Duchess of Cambridge's terrible "morning sickness." I know what it's like to be pregnant and feel sick 24/7. If my doctor had offered to prescribe a medication to help with my sickness, I probably would have taken it.

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    2. In 1983, I was given an anti-morning sickness prescription. (the name escapes me) I suffered from debilitating nausea/vomiting. I took the drug for most of my pregnancy. At around 6mos gestation, my obstetrician notified me that the drug production was cancelled. However, it was available until the supply ran out. No info was given to me as to 'why' it was cancelled (pre-internet). The doctor wrote for enough medication to see me through to term. Due to the severe symptoms, I opted to continue the medication. My daughter was born perfect. It was only the following year that I became aware of the problems with the drug. It caused birth defects very similar to Thalidomide. I count myself among the lucky ones, in that my daughter was spared.

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  6. Very interesting post. I had never thought very much about how life must be for the thalidomide babies that became thalidomide adults. They are quite a testament to the human will to live. Thank you for posting this complete with the pictures.
    A couple of comments:
    1) a great example of the FDA protecting the health of Americans.
    2) all businesses, by definition, are created to make money; even not-for-profit businesses have to support themselves. Some businesses have money making as their only aim, and others strive to provide good service while making money. Pharmaceutical companies are businesses, some with profit as the only bottom line and others with missions to improve the health of their customers while making money.

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    1. Absolutely right, Wilma. We have to keep in mind that pharmaceutical companies are businesses. They don't exist merely to take care of us, but they have produced many excellent and life-saving medications.

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  7. This was certainly a tragedy in the history of American medicine.

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    1. It was a tragedy, but not so much for the U.S., where the FDA did not approve thalidomide.

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    2. Unfortunately, it was a bigger tragedy in the US than people know. Though not as large a number as in Europe, the number of victims in the US is quite a bit larger than publicized. Military hospitals gave the drug to the families of Vets, then hushed it up. My father became a thelidomide baby this way, as did several hundred others- who were not part of the "drug trials". The victims simply weren't acknowledged. Because of this, there is no compensation for those in the US who suffered from this crime. I get so angry when I read that there were less than 100 victims in the US and the sort.(in historical documents) I have personally met more. Thanks for posting this article.

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  8. "Perhaps it will lead us to question the side effects of the medications we receive, and to recognize that pharmaceutical companies don't exist to serve us."-So true. They peddle crap!

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    1. I shouldn't have written that as if the pharmaceutical companies do nothing good. When my mom was a teenager and her dad was diagnosed with leukemia, he died two weeks later. Now many people with various kinds of cancer can survive and often live for many years.

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  9. I read about thalidomide babies years ago, but never saw any photos until now. How sad that these birth defects could have been avoided if the drug companies had known more before making thalidomide available.

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    1. Some people did know more and didn't care.

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  10. I remember discussing this with my mother; one of my first experiences of government gone wrong.

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    1. But in the U.S., it was government gone right because the FDA didn't approve the drug. It was tested. Because of that the U.S. did have some thalidomide babies, but compared to England, Canada, and some European countries, the numbers in the U.S. were low.

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  11. I watched the documentary a while back. I remember hearing about babies born without arms and legs when I was a kid in the 50s. So sad. I guess I'm lucky my mom didn't suffer much from morning sickness.

    I am behind watching Call The Midwife. I know that even 40 years ago (because I stayed friends with one of Dagan's neonatal nurses) that doctors still just left babies with severe defects to die. She confided in me that they had a baby in the unit once with Anencephaly (basically no brain and partial skull) that the doctors instructed to nurses to not feed or give fluids and just keep it warm and comfortable. And that was in a big metropolitan children's hospital in the 70s.

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    1. Wow! I guess the baby couldn't live anyway, but that's frightening.

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    2. Oh, they can live--sometimes for decades--but are extremely low functioning, need constant care like a newborn, and usually never even learn to crawl or speak. The doctor in charge was making a judgment call. The nurse told me the parents never came to visit the baby and it lived for several days--crying a lot. The staff was told not to even pick it up! Haunts her to this day. Did the parents even know it survived? Did the doctor tell the parents what he had commanded? She never knew.

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    3. That's heartbreaking. I would want to hold my baby, but if the doctor didn't tell the parents . . . that's not right. On Call the Midwife, the doctor ordered the nurses to tell the parents that their baby had died. But in another case when the midwife delivered a thalidomide baby, the parents accepted the child and knew they had extra work on their hands, but resolved to do everything necessary to care for their child.

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  12. My own children were born between 1959 & 1963. I remember the thalidomide babies--this made me want to cry!!

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    1. That's because you're so kindhearted.

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  13. I remember, when I was in school, in the early 60's, and the teacher always held the hand of this one girl. She was shy and withdrawn. Apparently she was a thalidomide baby - mild case if it but her hand was deformed, one arm was shorter than the other and same with her legs. No one made fun of her, but curious children, were always trying to get a glimpse. I came home that day, really bothered by it - I was like 7. My mom told me all about it. Once we were shopping downtown in SanFrancisco, and I was again, about 7 or 8 and I saw this man, that was deformed and his torso was on a skateboard, that he used to get around. Another time, I will never forget. So Sad.

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    1. I'm glad you're able to say that no one made fun of the girl, but she must have gotten sick of the stares.

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  14. Devastating. I've heard of thalidomide, but I've never seen pictures of the effects. Heartbreaking.

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  15. Saw the episode and made me think "there but for the grace of God" why because when she was having me my mum was prescribed thalidomide but she never took it as she wasn't sure about the idea of taking any type of drug.

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    1. That's frightening, Jo-Anne. I was so sick when I was pregnant that if a doctor had prescribed something that would help me and I had no reason to fear it, I would have taken it.

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  16. I love "Call the Midwives"! The episodes dealing with thalidamide babies were heartbreaking.

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    1. I've learned so much from that show.

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    2. As have I! Thanks for visiting my blog too! Following you too!

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  17. I've heard of this drug! It is horrible. Even Billy Joel mentioned it in his song "We didn't start the fire." There's a line in the tune "Children of Thalidomide". I read up about it and was horrified at the effects.

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    1. In some countries they continued selling the drug even after the companies knew about the devastating effects.

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  18. I have seen documentaries about this and my mom told me about this because, when she was pregnant with my brother, she was offered this and my mom said no. Thank god because my brother was born in1961. This drug came from Germany from what I can remember and Canada took to it big time. Thankfully the states were more curious.

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    1. Yes, it came from Germany and has a Nazi history.

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    1. I knew what you meant because I can read your mind.

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  20. I knew a man a few years back who's mom had taken thalidomide. He had "t-rex" arms(what he called them)but he became one of the lucky ones affected by this tragedy.
    This gentleman was a real go-getter and a successful business entrepreneur with a great personality. He ran multiple successful businesses, had a large giving heart and was a blessing to his community. After spending a few minutes with him you didn't even notice or give a second though to his arms. He once told me about the struggles he faced growing up and how his mother was told to just put him "away" and forget and go on with her life(have more children). But luckily for him, his mother was more enlightened for that era than the medical and social professionals.
    I use to wonder if he had been born "normal" and hadn't had this adversity in his life, if he would have been as successful and such a generous and loving person?

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    1. What an interesting comment. It's difficult to know everything that shapes personality. Nature v. nurture interests me.

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  21. I graduated from hs in 1964. I had heard about this even while in hs. My first baby was born in 1968, and I was terrified to take any medicine, even antibiotics. I was sick from a week after the "episode" until the morning I gave birth. Thankfully, I was never exposed to this drug.

    These pictures have circulated for years. I think it is important people see the damage done. No one is judging the infants shown. Maybe the woman who wrote will see that these pictures might make more people cautious and distrustful and save other infants the same fate.
    pparsimony

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    1. The thalidomide survivor who contacted me did so because I had photos of adult survivors who are friends of hers. I used the photos because I found them without copyrights or attribution, but I'm grateful that she got in touch with me and asked me to take them down as I really had no right to use them. It would have been very unusual for you to be given thalidomide because the FDA allowed it in the U.S. for testing purposes only. It was not approved for general use in America. Most countries banned it by 1962 or 3.

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  22. Shocking and scary. It truly makes you wonder. I'm always leery when it comes to being given prescribed medicine. What are the side effects? Are there any LONG term side effects? Even after study, sometimes we never know. And then there are the medications you see in commercials where the side effects seem to outweigh the cause they are preventing.
    Thanks for this information. It's always good to be a little more educated.
    PS - So angry a doctor could be so rude as to call the poor children, monsters. Who's the real monster?

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  23. I remember when this story broke. It was horrifying then, and it's still horrifying now. I was so freaked out by what happened to those babies, I refused to even take an aspirin when I was pregnant.

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