Kim Kardashian’s promotion of a morning sickness antidote to her tens of millions of social media followers gives me a chill. I can never forget the vast promotional campaign for another wonder drug that was heavily promoted worldwide in the late fifties and sixties as safe in pregnancy.
It wasn’t. The result was the thalidomide disaster. It killed 100,000 babies and inflicted terrible injuries on thousands of others. Duchesnay, Inc., the company making Ms. Kardashian’s medication, Diceglis, has declared “it’s been studied and there was no increased risk to the baby,” according to her Instagram post. They may be right. But, with respect, I’d rather we had a promotion that followed FDA guidelines for properly disclosing a drug’s risks.
This week the FDA issued a warning saying Duchesnay had failed to give information about the drug’s risks. That is another somber echo. Decades ago, millions in the United States would have suffered but for Dr. Francis Kelsey, the young heroine at the FDA: She died this month a centenarian universally honored for sticking to her scientific conviction that the U.S. licensee’s testing of Kevadon (the U.S. trade name for thalidomide) was too sloppy.
Alas, the U.S. was alone in putting science before sales. In the sixties, the idea was propagated by law and government — and echoed by all the media organizations — that it was OK for pregnant women to take thalidomide on prescription for morning sickness and insomnia because the placenta would prevent the chemicals reaching the fetus. It was a falsehood. The original German manufacturers of thalidomide and their British distributors promoted it as completely safe.
They bribed and bullied anyone who raised a doubt.
Taken between the fourth and twelfth week of pregnancy, thalidomide, under different brand names worldwide, caused thousands of babies who survived to be born with foreshortened limbs or none at all.
Dr. Martin Johnson, a longtime director of the British Thalidomide Trust suggests that apart from war and genocide, thalidomide was the cause of the largest man-made disaster in European history. The affected parents and their sons and daughters have had to fight long and hard against the German company Chemie Grunenthal, which lied and lied about what testing it did, and is to this day fighting in the Spanish courts to deny compensation in the face of gallant and inspiring support by British victims.
It’s nice that Ms. Kardashian, who has since removed the promotional post from her Instagram account, and her friends have found relief with Diclegis, but they, above all, should be transparent about the risks it can pose to expectant moms. None of us want a more baleful OMG Instagram.