It would be nearly six years before the scope of thalidomide's damage began to be realized, during which time doctors and public health officials extolled its safety and efficacy. Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 babies were born with defects, including missing limbs and shortened arms with flipper-like hands, ear and eye deformities causing blindness and deafness, brain damage, heart defects and more. Countless thousands more women miscarried, those deaths unreported as being caused by the drug, which had been widely distributed in 46 countries.
It would take another 50 years for the drug company Grünenthal to apologize for putting its drug on the market and causing the most heartbreaking drug debacle in modern history.
The thalidomide story is one of the blackest pages in the history of modern pharmaceutical-driven medicine. Though it supposedly changed the way pregnant women and doctors view potential drug dangers—and underscored the tremendous vulnerability of unborn babies to toxins, as their systems are developing and growing so rapidly—it is a fading memory for today's generation of mothers.
They have heard about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and street drugs, but are more trusting than ever of pharmaceutical concoctions sanctioned by their doctor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites a 2011 study using US data from 1976-2008, which found that about 90 percent of women take at least one medication during pregnancy and about 70 percent take at least one prescription medication.
Over the last 30 years, the CDC reports, use of prescription medications during the first trimester of pregnancy has increased more than 60 percent. "First trimester use of four or more medications has nearly tripled and use of four or more medications anytime during pregnancy has more than doubled."1
Add to that the fact that mothers today are offered at least two vaccines during pregnancy, while previous generations of mothers had none. No matter how they are marketed, these are pharmaceuticals containing foreign chemical ingredients that act on both the mother's immune system and the baby's developing body in profound and poorly understood ways.
Even the nightmare drug thalidomide never really went away: it is still produced by the millions of tablets every year in a number of countries including Brazil, where it is used to treat leprosy. Despite the warnings attached to it, a recent study identified 100 Brazilian babies born between 2005 and 2010 with the hallmark missing limbs and other rare and severe deformities of the drug, which is being taken by pregnant Brazilian women by accident or without knowledge of its dangers.2 New thalidomide analogs that are rapidly being developed are posing additional concerns, according to a 2017 review of the problem.3
Thalidomide's profound effects on anatomical development are all too obvious. In the past few years, however, a number of studies have found subtle but alarming effects of more commonly used drugs including over-the-counter painkillers and vaccines, which raise troubling questions about current protocols and popular public health advice for pregnant women.
Some women will go to great lengths to eat healthily and avoid toxins like alcohol, pesticides and heavy metals that are known to impact their rapidly developing baby's growth and brain health. Yet few are aware that the vaccines recommended to them by pharmaceutical companies and public health officials contain numerous documented hazardous ingredients, and that studies on the impact of these vaccines on their baby's health rarely exceed a few months, if not weeks or days.
There is zero long-term data available on babies whose mothers received vaccine injections—for example, information on the incidence of immune-mediated diseases like asthma, eczema and allergies. No studies look at the effect of vaccinating pregnant mothers on rates of autoimmune diseases, ranging from type 1 diabetes and arthritis to multiple sclerosis later in life, even though immunologists know these diseases can be the result of a hyper-stimulated immune system.
Remarkably, there are also no studies looking at other serious immune-mediated diseases including cancer.
Most Western public health agencies now advise pregnant women to get at least two vaccines during pregnancy: a flu vaccine and a pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. The CDC website on influenza during pregnancy is hardly reassuring. "There is a lot of evidence that flu vaccines can be given safely during pregnancy, though these data are limited for the first trimester," it says.
The site acknowledges a recent study that found a higher risk of miscarriage—as much as 7.7 times higher—among women in early pregnancy in the 28 days after receiving their second of two consecutive annual flu shots. However, the agency then doubles down on its original recommendation to get the flu vaccine at any stage of pregnancy while its researchers "analyze and consider additional findings."4
Trying to downplay the evidence, Amanda Cohn, senior adviser for vaccines at the CDC, stressed the need for more data, saying at a news conference, "I think it's really important for women to understand that this is a possible link, and it is a possible link that needs to be studied and needs to be looked at over more [flu] seasons."
The Tdap vaccines given to pregnant women for protection against whooping cough contain aluminum adjuvants designed to stoke the mother's immune system to respond to the vaccine antigen (viral particles). Aluminum's neurotoxicity is well established. Nevertheless, public health authorities like the CDC merely say that your baby is not being exposed to "too much" neurotoxin to damage it, even though the amounts these agencies refer to as safe are based on ingested, not injected, aluminum.
What's more, studies that have looked at animals exposed to aluminum in the womb have found behavioral and neurochemical changes that persist into adulthood.5
A number of flu vaccines (Afluria, Flulaval and Fluvirin) contain thimerosal, a molecule that in turn contains mercury—one of the most neurotoxic substances known. It's been demonstrated to impair social interaction, communication abilities and complex thinking, and to induce movement disorders, sleep disturbances and even repetitive and self-injurious behavior.
The thimerosal used as a preservative in flu vaccines has been repeatedly demonstrated as harmful to developing children in many studies over the past 75 years. The only recent studies purporting to find it safe for children, sponsored by the CDC, have been roundly criticized for manipulating data to justify the organization's endorsement of the ingredient.6
A 2007 animal study, which may not apply to humans, found that giving baby hamsters doses of thimerosal proportionately similar to the amount given to children in the 2001 vaccine schedule resulted in lower body and brain weight, lower neuron density in the brain, neuron death, demyelination and damage to a specific brain cell population—the Purkinje cell layer involved in movement—that is a characteristic of autism.7 Although the CDC disputes the link between autism and thimerosal, it also claims to have removed the molecule from all childhood vaccines. Nevertheless, thimerosal is still present in some vaccines, most notably flu vaccines, given to pregnant women and babies just six months old.
Besides these chemicals, there is a witch's brew of other trace ingredients in flu and pertussis vaccines, including chemical detergents polysorbate 20 and polysorbate 80, which were both associated with serious adverse effects, including some deaths, in low birth weight infants when intravenously administered in a vitamin E preparation,8 along with formaldehyde, antibiotics, fragments of unrelated insect viruses and cells used to produce the vaccine, and various extracts from the blood or tissue of other animals, like cows, used to feed the insect cells—none of which has been tested for its impact on fetal immunology or development.
Public health advocates insist that being vaccinated against the flu will protect women and their babies from the most devastating long-term effects of maternal infection, which has been associated with autism and schizophrenia.9 However, the very processes of infection that lead to these disastrous outcomes are also induced by vaccines.
Both foreign viruses and the vaccines designed to mimic them trigger the release of powerful chemicals called cytokines by immune cells in the blood (which explains why the most common symptoms of flu vaccine—headache, sore joints and muscles, irritability and so on—are identical to those of 'real' flu). From there, they can activate the brain's resident immune cells, called microglia, to produce cytokines of their own, which can harm nerve cells.
The cytokines in a pregnant woman's bloodstream can eventually reach her baby through the placenta, where they can stimulate the microglia in the much more sensitive brain of the developing fetus.
In 2007, cattle farmers in Europe began to notice a strange new disease among their calves. They had nosebleeds and black, tarry stools indicative of internal bleeding. If they were ear tagged or injured in some other small way, they might bleed uncontrollably. In addition to the bleeding, they developed fevers and eventually died, and post-mortem examinations revealed massive internal bleeding and decimated bone marrow.
For two years, the mystery 'Bleeding Calf Syndrome' spread across Europe and into the UK, killing an estimated 4,500 calves and baffling veterinarians. Later studies showed that about 15 percent of apparently normal calves in the affected herds had "subclinical disease" and "profoundly altered hematology."10
A combined effort by researchers finally confirmed farmers' suspicions about the underlying cause of the bleeding epidemic: Pfizer's new PregSure vaccine, given to pregnant cows to protect against bovine viral diarrhea. In 2010, the vaccine was pulled from the market.
A number of studies by European agriculture ministries and veterinary researchers that followed revealed that the vaccine caused the mothers to produce aggressive antiviral antibodies, present in their milk right after giving birth, which also attacked the newborn calves' blood cells when they nursed. This type of assault is called a 'cross-reaction'—what happens when the immune system mistakenly turns on itself instead of a foreign invader.
What's more, subsequent pregnancy seemed to reactivate the immune system and trigger new antibody production in vaccinated cows, so they continued to produce sick and dying calves long after the vaccine was pulled.
The implications of the bleeding calf phenomenon for human babies have not been widely discussed, but a 2017 article in the journal Expert Review of Vaccines acknowledged the potential risk.11
Public health agencies advise pregnant women with a fever, headache or other pain to take acetaminophen (Tylenol, also called paracetamol in other countries). They've assured women that this go-to over-the-counter medication is safe during all stages of pregnancy. However, recent studies suggest that these painkillers may unwittingly be causing subtler damage to the reproductive systems of their babies and even their grandchildren.
Presenting research at the Fertility 2018 conference in Liverpool, England, University of Edinburgh's Dr Rod Mitchell reported that his team had tested the effect of acetaminophen and ibuprofen on human fetal testes and ovaries. After exposing the tissue samples to the drugs for a week, the researchers counted the number of germ cells, which turn into sperm and eggs. They found that the number of egg cells in the ovaries fell by up to 40 percent, while the number of germ cells in the testes was reduced by over 20 percent.12
Both acetaminophen and ibuprofen are believed to interfere with prostaglandins, which play a critical role in the developing fetal reproductive system and control ovulation, the menstrual cycle and the induction of labor.
This suggests that baby girls exposed to the common painkillers could end up being born with fewer eggs—which means fewer years to conceive and earlier menopause.
Another recent study from the Edinburgh team (which may not apply to humans) found that mother rats given painkillers during pregnancy (four days of the prescription painkiller indomethacin or nine days of acetaminophen) had female offspring with fewer eggs, smaller ovaries and smaller litters of babies than those not exposed to the drugs.
The effects of the painkillers were already apparent at the time of birth, and they were found to affect the subsequent generation of rats, too. Granddaughters of the mother given painkillers in pregnancy also had reduced ovary size and altered reproductive function.13
Boys having fewer sperm is not as concerning, since they will make new sperm throughout their lives, but other research has linked extended use of acetaminophen during pregnancy with cryptorchidism—undescended testes—in sons.14 Up to one in six males may have reproductive disorders, and these are frequently attributed to low testosterone during in utero development. A 2015 study from the University of Edinburgh research team found that baby mice exposed to a therapeutic dose of acetaminophen for seven days had 45 percent lower plasma testosterone and 18 percent lower seminal vesicle weight (a biomarker of exposure to male sex hormones).15
Another modern-day example of an underestimated drug danger during pregnancy is the use of steroids, given to pregnant women to hasten the development of their babies' lungs. Many premature babies used to die when they were born early because their lungs were underdeveloped and they lacked a substance called lung surfactant; they would quickly go into respiratory distress after birth. In the 1970s, drugs called synthetic glucocorticoids, such as betamethasone, were introduced to speed up babies' lung development in utero, and it increased premature babies' odds of survival by as much as 40 percent.
By the 1990s, however, it had become common practice to give any woman at minimal risk of premature delivery multiple steroid injections as a 'just-in-case' measure, and doctors seemed to think the more the better, so it was not unheard of for women to receive 10 or 11 injections before delivery.
It wasn't until 2004 that researchers at the University of Toronto began to publish the results of their research in guinea pigs showing alarming neurological side-effects of giving three glucocorticoid injections during pregnancy, at doses equivalent to those given to humans.16 Since then, they've shown that baby guinea pigs exposed in utero grew more slowly and had higher rates of hyperactivity, and the eventual offspring of these guinea pigs also showed behavioral and physiological differences. Male second-generation pups, grandchildren of the pregnant guinea pigs given the drug, were disinterested in exploring a new environment, while female second-generation pups were hyperactive and made strange sounds. Studies of humans have uncovered similar findings.
Effects lasting generations
Research on young children has established that exposure to multiple courses of steroids during pregnancy is associated with lower birthweight,17 hyperactivity18 and neurodevelopmental impairment.19
"There is now strong evidence that exposure to excess glucocorticoid during periods of rapid brain development has permanent consequences for endocrine function and behavior in the offspring," wrote the University of Toronto researchers, including fetal physiology specialist Stephen Matthews.20 Their most recent study, published in 2017, found that those profound effects are passed on, through both male and female offspring, for three subsequent generations.21
Back in the 1990s, doctors assured women that there was absolutely no risk to their unborn babies from antidepressant drugs like fluoxetine (Prozac) and citalopram (Celexa). In recent years, however, a number of studies have been published that suggest a much more troubling picture.
A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal, the latest and most definitive of its kind, looked at 18,487 pregnant women who took antidepressant medication in the first trimester and found them "at risk of having a child with cardiac, musculoskeletal, craniofacial, digestive and respiratory defects as well as craniosynostosis [a condition in which the skull does not form properly and which causes a misshapen head and, rarely, brain damage]," the researchers from Montreal concluded.
The brain signaling molecule serotonin that antidepressants are designed to affect plays a role in early organ formation and is essential for the development of all embryonic cells, the researchers added, ". . . thus any insult that has the potential to disturb the serotonin signaling process, has the potential to result in a wide variety of malformations."22
Those who find themselves pregnant while on the drugs should not abruptly discontinue them, but should consult a professional to help gradually wean off. Thankfully, there are much safer, natural ways to combat depression, as well as infection and pain, in pregnancy.
What to do instead
To boost mood:
Get some sun. The evidence shows that exposing the skin to sunshine (without burning) to synthesize vitamin D has profound benefits on mood.23
Exercise. While you may have to adapt your exercises to suit your baby bump, routine physical activity, yoga in particular, can be effective for combating depression in pregnancy.24
Try omega-3s. Omega-3 oils can both prevent and treat mental health disorders including depression.25
Suggested daily dosage: At least 500 mg of omega-3s, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) with at least 200 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Look for a brand that has been filtered to remove toxins including mercury
To prevent flu:
Take vitamin D supplements. Considerable research supports vitamin D supplementation to prevent colds and flu. One pooled review involving 11,321 participants found that vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of acute respiratory tract infection by 12 percent—a higher success rate than the flu shot, without the toxin exposure.
Suggested daily dosage: 1,000-3,000 mcg, but check with your health practitioner
For pain relief:
Digestive enzymes, lavender massage, Reiki, homeopathy and acupuncture all are tried and tested ways to ease a headache or backache.