Author: Rock Brynner and Trent Stephens
Publisher: Basic Books
Star Rating: 3.5/5
Date Read: September 12th to 16th, 2014
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Brit reads some really strange books”. And yeah, I do, but this one is actually prescribed reading for my breadth subject at uni, Drugs That Shape Society. It’s been an interesting (although completely unrelated to my degree) subject that poses some interesting moral questions regarding the use of legal and nonlegal drugs in society. One of the drugs we study is thalidomide, hence the required reading of Dark Remedy.
Dark Remedy was an interesting read about a drug I knew nothing about at the start of the book. Thalidomide is a chemical compound manufactured in the 50s by German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal, marketed as a sedative for use in patients with anxiety, colds, headaches, insomnia among other conditions. Despite the lack of research and testing, thalidomide was promised to be “completely safe”, so much so that pregnant women wouldn’t even bother to inform their doctor that they had taken it. About a year after it became accessible to the public, often sold over the counter without prescriptions, the complaints started to roll in. The most common side effect to be linked to thalidomide was polyneuritis, or nerve damage. Grunenthal brushed these reports off and swept them under the rug, all the while hiring a private detective to keep an idea on patients and doctors who reported them.
Then came the epidemic of children born in Germany with rare birth defects, including missing ears, reduced limbs or extra toes or fingers, among other defects. At first it was thought they must be genetic conditions and the link to thalidomide had not yet been made. Meanwhile, in Australia an obstetrician named Dr. William McBride treated a patient with severe morning sickness for whom all other drugs had failed. He had just been introduced to the newest drug, suggested as a sedative for patients in labour, and administered it to his patient. It worked and so he continued to prescribe it, never knowing the sentence he was giving their children. It wasn’t until the children were born that Dr. McBride started to look into the causes of their birth defects. By the end of that same weekend he was convinced thalidomide was to blame, and he began to conduct thalidomide trials on mice and guine pigs.
Dr. William McBride was the first person to connect thalidomide with birth defects, however it didn’t stop the epidemic straight away. Thousands of babies and families were affected by thalidomide before it was taken off the shelves, forever having ruined their lives. There were many court cases and although compensation was awarded, Grunenthal and the British company Distillers were never criminally charged, which just seems crazy to me. When thalidomide was finally taken off the shelves and made no longer available, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. But thalidomide was not gone forever.
Within the last twenty to thirty years, it has been discovered that thalidomide can be used to successfully treat conditions such as leprosy, myeloma, HIV and various cancers. Thalidomide’s revival, as it is called, improved the quality of life of many people whose diseases had ostracised them from the community. At first it could only be obtained illegally, over the American/Mexico border but after years of deliberation and consideration, thalidomide could be prescribed by doctors again, complete with the provision of birth control and a high understanding of the risks involved. What may have come as a surprise was the support of the “thalidomiders”, those that had been born with defects caused by thalidomide who had managed to live past childhood. In a compassionate statement by Randy Warren, founder of the Thalidomide Victims’ Association of Canada, he expressed that they could not allow people to suffer by restricting their use of thalidomide. All they asked was that the education of the effects of thalidomide be made clear to potential users, which could only be done if the drug was legal. A photo of a thalidomide child is included in every prescription of thalidomide.
I didn’t mean this post to be a complete summary of the book but the whole thing was just so fascinating, especially (even though it makes it worse) since this is a true story. This actually happened. And in relating the facts of the events, I found this book to be the right mix of science, anecdotes and empathy. As a Science student, I understand all the talk of DNA, clinical trials and other science speak but as a person I was touched by the stories of thalidomide survivors and the people who worked tirelessly, such as Frances Kelsey, to make sure thalidomide didn’t cause more damage. Dark Remedy shows us what went wrong, the carelessness of the manufacturer, the blatant disregard for the rights of the victims. It gives us the stories of those who suffered because of thalidomide and also those whose lives were saved by it. It was an insightful read that opened up my eyes to a tragedy I didn’t even know about – and the villains and heroes of the story.