Call the Midwife: Thalidomide makes an appearance in the series four finale

Doctor Turner prescribed a pregnant mother the dangerous drug in tonight's episode, perhaps hinting at dramas to come in series five

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As Call the Midwife strides out of the 1950s and into the swinging 60s there have been some big changes – and not just when it comes to the amount of hairspray Patsy has on her beehive.

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Over the last few series we’ve watched medical advances creep into the drama. First, we had the introduction of gas and air, there have been mutterings of a pill which will prevent unwanted pregnancy, and now, in the series four finale, we have been introduced to a new drug – with a ominously familiar name.  

In tonight’s episode, thalidomide was prescribed by Doctor Turner for a mother suffering from a serious form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum (the same suffered by the Duchess of Cambridge during her pregnancies.) 

Every woman in the family way is going to be banging your doors down for these. What’s that magic stuff in them again?” asked Mrs Gadsby. 

“The tablets are known as Distaval but the magic ingredient is called thalidomide,” replied Doctor Turner, perhaps giving us a clue as to what the midwives will be dealing with when the hit BBC1 period drama returns for its fifth series next year…

What was thalidomide?

Thalidomide was first marketed in 1957 in West Germany under name Contergan. It was initially used as a sedative or sleeping pill, but it was found to help nausea and morning sickness, so the medication was soon being prescribed for pregnant women. In the UK, the drug was licensed in 1958 under the name Distaval but it had been withdrawn by 1961. 

What happened?

Thalidomide was considered to be a safe, risk-free medication, but it was not tested on pregnant women. During 1960, doctors began to worry about the drug’s side effects, after long-term users reported nerve damage. But soon the extent of the side effects were clear.

Thalidomide was found to harm the development of unborn babies and cause serious birth defects, especially if taken in the first four to eight weeks of pregnancy. The drug led to the arms or legs of the babies being very short or incompletely formed. Other side effects also included deformed eyes, ears and hearts.

In the late 50s and early 60s over 10,000 children were born with thalidomide-related disabilities worldwide. Around 40% of thalidomide babies are reported to die at or shortly after birth. 

Then what happened? 

The drug was withdrawn in 1961 before the UK government issued a warning in May 1962. Thalidomide is now used as part of treatment programmes for cancer and leprosy sufferers. Its use is heavily regulated – women taking thalidomide now have to take two forms of birth control and take regular pregnancy tests. 

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Call the Midwife will return for a fifth series