Call the Midwife: what is thalidomide?

Series six revisits a baby born with serious birth defects in the late 50s and early 60s. Here's why...

97436

As Call the Midwife strides out of the 1950s and into the swinging 60s there have been some big changes. We’ve watched medical advances creep into the drama: gas and air, diaphragms, a move towards hospitals and the appearance of an exciting new pill which will prevent unwanted pregnancy. As well as a new drug – with an ominously familiar name.

Advertisement

At the end of series four, 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.) And it’s a storyline which has run ever since.

We’ve seen babies born with missing limbs, and newborns die in dreadful situations from unexplained complications. And in series five events took a new turn, when Doctor Turner received word that Distaval, the drug he’d prescribed so widely, was being withdrawn with immediate effect.

Now in series six, we revisit one of the babies who was born with dreadful birth defects as a result of Turner’s prescription.

So, 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 prescribed for pregnant women. In the UK, the drug was licensed in 1958 under the name Distaval but it had been withdrawn by the end of 1961.

How did thalidomide affect unborn babies?

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 affected babies are reported to die at or shortly after birth.

What happened when doctors realised Thalidomide was harmful?

The drug was withdrawn in 1961 before the UK government issued a warning in May 1962.

Advertisement

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.