Health Page: Life after Thalidomide
In December 1961, an exhausted young mother asked her GP for help. The doctor told her to take the sleeping drug he had prescribed for her fretful nine-month-old son, which she did, twice. Later, when her husband went to renew the prescription, they learned it had been taken off the market in November 1961 (although the UK government did not issue a warning until May 1962). The drug was thalidomide. The woman did not know she was in the early stages of pregnancy. Her baby girl, Mikey Argy, was born in August 1962. ‘My mother must have taken thalidomide around days 24 to 26 when my arms were forming because they are half length and my hands are misshapen and face the wrong way.’
Developed by German firm Chemie Grünenthal, thalidomide was first marketed as a sedative in West Germany in 1957 and in the UK a year later. As it was found to help nausea and morning sickness, thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women and used widely in the UK. According to the Thalidomide Trust (www.thalidomidetrust.org), it was seen as a very safe drug because overdoses led to prolonged sleep, not death. By 1960, however, German paediatricians were seeing babies born with limb malformations.
In 1961, there were many more cases, which also involved congenital heart disease, abnormalities of the eyes, ears, intestines and kidneys, and facial lesions. By November that year, reports of similar deformities were coming in from many countries. The common factor was thalidomide in early pregnancy. Around 40 per cent of thalidomide babies died at or shortly after birth.
Today, Mikey, 53, is a single mother with two daughters – Jessica, 16, and Madeline, 15. She gives the appearance of vibrant energy and is a vociferous campaigner for her fellow thalidomiders – for which efforts she was awarded an MBE last year. But Mikey is inconstant pain from neck, shoulder and lower back problems. ‘My spine is like a 70-year-old’s. I walk through the pain but sometimes I just can’t do it any more. I curl up in a ball wherever I am and wait for it to go.’ She practises pilates with tiny movements specific for her condition, and needs regular osteopathy sessions.
Because the state benefit system does not provide for all the ongoing requirements of Mikey and other thalidomiders, the government agreed a special health grant which is disbursed through the Thalidomide Trust. However, as the thalidomiders age, their health and mobility are deteriorating rapidly so they need more financial help. The Fifty Year Fight campaign (www.fiftyyearfight.org), in which Mikey is active, seeks to finally hold the German government to account and reach a financial settlement. ‘Without extra funding, survivors will continue to measure the cost in daily pain and suffering through the rest of their lives,’ says Mikey.
Next week, the first episode of the new series of Call the Midwife (BBC One) shows the birth of thalidomide baby Susan, whose progress will feature through the series. In Hollywood, movie moguls Harvey and Bob Weinstein plan a major film based on the thalidomide scandal. As Call the Midwife executive producer Pippa Harris says, ‘It’s a living story that should still be in the public consciousness.’
This children’s hairbrush featuring Buster the pony is best in class for persuading reluctant brushers to tame their own manes. Child’s Farm Tangle Tamer by Denman, £10, www.ocado.com and www.childsfarm.com.
BOOK OF THE WEEK; Everything you Need to Have: How to be at Home in Yourself by Gerad Kite Short Books, £12.99
There is a key sentence at the beginning of this book by psychotherapist and practitioner of five-element acupuncture Gerad Kite. He asks, ‘How often do you stop, and look inwards and find yourself content with what’s here and now? And how often do you hear someone else doing that: simply relishing the joy of the present?’ This important book guides you to find your own answers to living well with your self.