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Apology for murder – too little, too late

September 10, 2012

German pharmaceutical company “Chemie Gruenenthal” last week apologised to mothers who took the company’s morning sickness medicine called Thalidomide in the 1950s and 1960s and gave birth to children with congenital birth defects. Exactly 50 years ago, Thalidomide was pulled off the market.

Thalidomide was approved in 46 countries around the world for the treatment of morning sickness during pregnancy, as well as aiding sleep. It was not sold in the USA. Thalidomide became extremely popular in Australia, West-Germany, and the United Kingdom. It was taken off the market in 1961 after it was found to be closely linked to birth defects.

Unfortunately, by the time it had been pulled off the shelves, thousands of children had been born with deformities. Worldwide, nobody knows exactly how many victims of the drug there were – estimates range from 10,000 up to 20,000.

The most common birth defect seen with thalidomide use was “Phocomelia” – a condition characterised by defective, shortened limbs resulting in flipper hands and feet. Fetuses developed external ear abnormalities, digestive tract and genitourinary tract malformation, partial/total loss of hearing or sight, absence of lung, malformed heart and kidney. Approximately 40 per cent of fetuses exposed to Thalidomide died at, or shortly after birth.

When Thalidomide was first marketed it was hailed by the company as a “wonder drug" that provided a “safe and sound sleep".  The drug had earlier been researched in 1950’s by CIBA in Switzerland as a potential new medicine but they could not find any use for it.

Here is the punch line of this short story: Thalidomide has risen from the ashes! In 1998 thalidomide was licensed for treatment of leprosy.  Calling it “amazingly effective and successful” WHO showed 99 per cent of patients improved significantly and hailed it as a wonder drug (again!). Thalidomide is also being studied currently for the treatment of some cancers and autoimmune diseases.


Ayyaz Kiani is a public health specialist. He heads Devnet – a network of development consultants. Based in Islamabad, he has travelled around the world and continues to do so to meet fellow travelers. He can be contacted at


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