The Thalidomide Tragedy and its Long Term Effects on Women

In the late 1950s and 1960s, sleeplessness was a world-wide issue. Barbiturates were common sedatives; however, when thalidomide was discovered, its sedative side effects made its use widespread. In the late 1950s, thalidomide was sold over the counter and was marketed as a safer alternative to other sleep-aids. Around this time, it was also discovered that thalidomide alleviates morning sickness for pregnant women. Thalidomide was considered a safer alternative to most sleep medicines because those who tested the compound cited that there wasn’t a dosage high enough to kill any rats during testing. A majority of thalidomide’s distribution was due to off-label prescribing, which is the process of prescribing a medication for a non-listed use. In the United States, thalidomide was never approved by the FDA because the lack of thoroughness of the research.

After thalidomide was more widely marketed, especially to pregnant women, its adverse effects began to be discovered. Thalidomide was discovered to be able to cross the placenta and affect the growth of the fetus. Birth defects, such as flipper-like limbs were discovered in some of the babies of the women who took thalidomide. Soon, connections were made as to what was causing the birth defects in those babies. The thalidomide tragedy was known as one of the worst mistakes in pharmaceutical history, due to the lack of thoroughness of the research. The babies who suffered as a result of the thalidomide tragedy were referred to as the thalidomide babies. Because of this occurrence, much greater care was taken by pharmacists and doctors to ensure that no similar tragedy could happen. While this was a good idea, it had adverse effects for medical research on women.

After the thalidomide tragedy, women, and especially pregnant women, were excluded from pharmaceutical studies. The idea was to protect the women and future children by not allowing women to be included in risky trials. This idea, which is centered in protecting women, was a rapid response to the thalidomide tragedy. Women being excluded from clinical trials and pharmaceutical studies would, over several generations, curve the amount of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge that was specific to women. Some drugs and treatments act differently when they are taken by men and women, so this exclusion put women at a long-term disadvantage for finding drugs that were effective for them.

Effects of the social stigma that the thalidomide tragedy caused are still felt today, as women are still not tested on as much as men for the fear of affecting future generations. Thalidomide is considered one of the worst pharmaceutical mistakes of the modern era due to carelessness, but continuing to focus on men for the bulk of medical research places women at an extreme disadvantage.