Call the Midwife: Thalidomide Episode


Call the Midwife: Thalidomide Episode

The popular TV drama, Call the Midwife, broadcast an episode last night that revolved largely around the issue of Thalidomide. The drug, prescribed in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s to expecting mothers, had a devastating effect. Causing death and deformity, Thalidomide continues to have an impact on the lives of many. The episode of Call the Midwife has already resulted in heightened awareness of the dangers of drugs.

Thalidomide has several uses. In 1957 it became available in West Germany as an ‘over the counter’ medicine to treat morning sickness. Morning sickness affects women during pregnancy. Later, the medicine became available elsewhere. The consequences were quite devastating. Approximately 2000 child deaths have been attributed to the use of the drug during pregnancy. A further ten thousand babies were born with a variety of conditions. These included severe eyesight deficiency and the incorrect growth of limbs.

Roughly 40% of babies affected by Thalidomide died shortly after birth. The remaining children, like those depicted in Call the Midwife, had deformed limbs, ears, eyes and a range of other conditions such as Heart disease and skin disorders.

Thalidomide remained on sale for some time after the first defects were noticed. This is because the regulations and tests undertaken at the time were less stringent than they are today. It is also partly due to the fact that whilst ten thousand appears to be a high number, it remains a small percentage of babies born. Isolating the issue and linking it clearly to the medicine took time.

Thalidomide was widely prescribed in Western Europe and Northern America. It was advertised as a type of wonder drug. Doctors had no reason not to believe that they were helping their patients when prescribing it. For many, as in the episode shown last night, the removal of the licence for the medication came as a shock and led to a terrible realisation.

Thalidomide is still used as a drug. It has been tested thoroughly and is used for a much narrower range of conditions.

Further Reading

Radio Times – Call the Midwife

Smithosonian article about the manufacturer’s apology

The Thalidomide Society

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