was commonly marketed
under the brand name "Distaval"
1962. Prime Minister Robert Menzies led the Liberal Party, we witnessed the foundation of the Australian Ballet, Rod Laver dominated the tennis courts, and Even Stevens was known as “a sure thing” on the race track. Australian’s “twisted” with Chubby Checker, and then tuned into Elvis Presley as they motored in their EJ Holden’s. Jacqueline Kennedy was inspirational to our women’s fashion, and there was an increased awareness of the dangers of smoking by our Health Department.
1962 was also the year that finally saw the withdrawal of the drug Thalidomide. Marketed as a wonder drug, Thalidomide turned out to be a monster that rendered thousands of babies with life threatening and life altering deformities. The world has never seen such a medical disaster as it witnessed with Thalidomide and it is estimated approximately 40% of babies damaged by the effects of Thalidomide died in their first year of life. Without evidence-based research and believing in the words of a salesman, the Australian Liberal Government allowed Thalidomide to enter our country and be distributed accordingly. The results were devastating.
It’s now 2019. Time has passed, the surviving Thalidomide babies have grown and adapted to living with their disabilities as best as possible.
Throughout the years our country has witnessed the coming-and-going of Liberal governments, and seen the many faces of our changing Prime Ministers. Unfortunately what we haven't seen, is the recognition from our government that the Thalidomide disaster even occurred, and, that it occurred here in Australia under the ‘protection’ of a Liberal government. Support offered [financial or medical] has been at its barest minimum and sadly for the survivors and their families, there hasn’t even been an apology. It would be easy to believe that from a governmental perspective, Australian survivors of Thalidomide don’t even exist.
A Brief History:
The drug Thalidomide was developed by scientists at Chemie Grünenthal, in Germany. Thalidomide first entered the German market in 1957 as an over-the-counter sedative and sleeping tablet based on the maker’s safety claims. Thalidomide was advertised as “completely safe” for everyone, including mother and child, “even during pregnancy”, as its developers “could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat”.
Researchers also discovered that Thalidomide was a useful anti-nausea drug and was prescribed to pregnant women experiencing morning sickness. Originally in Australia, the drug marketed as Distaval, could be obtained over the counter at a chemist without a prescription (although later a prescription was required). Initially, patients taking thalidomide as a sedative had minimal side effects. Although there were reports of nerve irritation if taken in large doses, it was an effective sleeping tablet and anti-nausea tablet. If pregnant women took Distival during the critical time of foetal development (between eight to fourteen weeks gestation), it would undoubtedly lead to death, or varying degrees of birth defects.
By 1960, thalidomide was marketed in 46 countries around the world, with sales almost matching those of Aspirin.
The main abnormalities noted in babies of Thalidomide were:
- Defects of the muscles of the eye and of the face.
- Absence of the auricles with deafness.
- Absence or hypoplasia of arms, preferentially affecting the radius and the thumb.
- Thumbs with three joints or no fingers at all.
- Defects of the femur and of the tibia.
- Malformations of the heart, the bowel, the uterus, the digestive tract and the gallbladder.
- Defects of the spine
Thalidomide caused quite different malformations in different children. The individual type of thalidomide malformation depended on the quantity and time of intake, and although there are common characteristics associated with the deformities, each baby was unique in themselves.
Thalidomide does not produce malformations if only taken before the 34th day after the last menstruation and usually no malformation if taken only after the 50th day (Lenz, 1992).