Thousands of women at risk from ‘silent Thalidomide’
A drug intended to prevent miscarriage is blamed for causing cancer in the daughters – and possibly even granddaughters – of women who took it decades ago.
By Sarah Morrison and Jaymi McCann
Tens of thousands of British families are to be asked if they are victims of a drug given to pregnant women which can cause fatal illness in the second, and possibly even third, generations. Some women given the drug in this country have already obtained compensation in America.
Diethylstilboestrol (DES), a drug given to women for 30 years up to 1973, has been found to cause a rare form of vaginal and cervical cancer in some of the daughters of the women who took it, as well as fertility problems. Compensation of an estimated $1.5bn has been paid out in the US. There is even a suspicion that DES – known as the “silent Thalidomide” – can affect the grandchildren of those who took it.
Legal action against the 14 different drug companies that sold and promoted DES from the early 1940s to 1970s is being brought by at least 80 women in the US, who all believe that the synthetic form of oestrogen, given to their mothers in an effort to reduce miscarriages, caused them to develop breast cancer years later. Their lawyer, Aaron Levine, will travel to the UK in two weeks’ time to co-ordinate a hunt for the “DES daughters” in this country who have been unable to get compensation in British courts.
The saga surrounding DES, developed in England in 1938, began when it was prescribed to millions of women in the US, Australia and Europe, despite the fact that research published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology in 1953 revealed that women receiving it suffered a higher rate of miscarriage. In 1971, the US Food and Drug Administration told doctors to stop prescribing DES when it was discovered that one in 1,000 daughters of women who had taken it developed a rare form of vaginal and cervical cancer, known as clear cell adenocarcinoma (CCAC).
Mr Levine, a Washington DC lawyer who is representing all 80 women in the US, told The Independent on Sunday that the prescription of the controversial drug was “quackery”. “It never worked. It was like leeches or bleeding or copper rings,” he said. “It didn’t do anything positive for anyone, and didn’t help anyone’s pregnancy. What is striking is that it was banned in 1971 here [in the US], but that it continued to be sold years later in the UK.”