‘Silent Thalidomide’: Thousands of mothers and their daughters at risk of cancer
‘Silent Thalidomide’: Thousands of mothers and their daughters at risk of cancer from anti-miscarriage drugs they took decades ago
Recent study found drug doubled risk of breast cancer in DES daughters aged over 40
Around 2,000 women have brought cases against drug companies in America after DES exposure
By Neil Sears
Last updated at 2:18 AM on 23rd January 2012
Tens of thousands of woman could suffer a rare cancer caused by a banned drug taken by their mothers or even grandmothers.
The drug, Diethylstilboestrol (DES), was freely prescribed to pregnant women in Britain for three decades up to 1973, and was supposed to prevent miscarriages.
But it was belatedly banned in Britain after it was found to increase the risk of miscarriage – and it is now feared that it can lead to a deadly cancer to a second and even third generation.
Some 2,000 women have already sought compensation in America, with payouts totalling up to £1bn from the numerous drug companies that sold DES, while scores more are launching more legal action.
Now fresh compensation cases are set to begin here, with tens of thousands of British women to be asked if they could be potential victims of the drug nicknamed ‘the silent Thalidomide’.
As well as causing a rare cervical and vaginal cancer, and possibly breast cancer, in the daughters, and potentially grandchildren, of the women who took it long ago, DES is also being blamed for causing fertility problems.
The drug, a synthetic copy of the female hormone oestrogen, was created in Britain in 1938, and was soon being prescribed to millions of women around the world.
Doubts about the wisdom of using it surfaced in 1953, when an American study showed it caused more, rather than fewer miscarriages.
But it was not until 1971 that US authorities told doctors to stop prescribing it – after it was found that one in a thousand of the daughters of women prescribed DES had developed the cervical and vaginal cancer ‘clear cell adenocarcinoma’ (CCAC).
And it was only in 1973 that British doctors were advised to stop prescribing the drug.
The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology has suggested 7,500 British women took DES, but there are other claims that up to 300,000 could be at risk.
Figures suggest that daughters of women who took the drug are made 40 times more likely to develop the cancer CCAC, often when young adults. The cancer is fatal in more than a quarter of cases.
One study suggested that breast cancer risk is also doubled.
It will be impossible for many possible victims to find out, of course, whether their mothers or grandmothers used the drug.
Research on rodents has lent weight to the fear that DES dangerously alters DNA not only in the individual taking the drug, but also that those changes are passed on at least two generations.
Washington DC lawyer Aaron Devine, who is representing the 80 American women currently seeking compensation, is due in Britain in a fortnight to arrange a search for potential victims here.
The first woman in Britain found to have suffered as a result of DES taken by her mother is Heather Justice, 59, of Jarrow in Tyne and Wear.
She was diagnosed with vaginal cancer aged 25, then went through a hysterectomy and other surgery. Records showed her mother had taken DES in the 1950s, but because she did not know which company produced it, has been unable to bring legal action.
Mrs Justice said: ‘One of the problems is that unlike Thalidomide, where you see the problem the minute the baby was born, women who took DES had healthy babies.
‘Problems were hidden until the teens and twenties, by which point we were forgotten about. When I asked my mum what she had taken, she didn’t even remember the name of the stuff. It is a complete and utter minefield.’
Among others who believe they have been afflicted in Britain are Janet Hall, 61, of Bournemouth – whose mother died from lung cancer aged 32 – who had to have much of her cervix removed when she was 20. She suffered a miscarriage, then had two daughters.
One, Hannah, 26, has had pre-cancerous cells found in her cervix, she said.
Mrs Hall said: ‘I feel guilty for my girls. It messes with your mind; it makes you ask why you had to have children.’
A spokesman for the Department of Health spoke of having ‘every sympathy’ for self-proclaimed victims, but said: ‘With regard to compensation for people who believe they have been adversely affected by this drug, this is a matter for the manufacturer(s) and/or the UK licensees of the drug.’