‘Silent Thalidomide’ could affect thousands of Australian women

It’s known as ‘Silent Thalidomide’, and doctors fear it may be affecting up to 740,000 Australian women, even though many of them don’t even know they’ve been exposed.

Prescribed in Australia from the early 1940s until the early 1970s, it was believed that Diethylstilboestrol (DES) could prevent miscarriages and ensure a healthy pregnancy. It was also prescribed for a number of other conditions, including as an acne treatment, as a primitive form of the ‘Morning After Pill’ and as part of a Hormone Replacement Therapy during menopause. It was withdrawn from sale in 1971 after studies identified that women treated with DES had an increased incidence of vaginal cancer.

However doctors now believe that the carcinogenic effects of DES affect not only those who took it, but also their children, and possibly even their grandchildren.

A study led by Dr Robert Hoover at America's National Cancer Institute has found that daughters of women who were prescribed the drug during pregnancy have nearly double the risk of developing breast cancer by the age of 55, and are 40 times more likely to develop a rare form of cervical and vaginal cancer than women who were never exposed to the drug.

However, unlike thalidomide where the side effects became obvious as soon as the first affected babies began to be delivered, DES has been a far stealthier predator. Because the devastating side effects weren’t identified until many years after DES had been widely available, many women may not even know they have been exposed to it. Those who may be affected include those whose mothers and grandmothers took DES during pregnancy.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) recommend that women who were exposed to DES in utero have an annual pelvic exam, Pap smear and breast exam, and that those over 40 should have an annual mammogram. They currently do not have any screening recommendations for third-generation exposed women.

In the United States, as many as 2000 women have filed lawsuits against the drug companies that manufactured and marketed DES, but to date, no such legal recourse has occurred in Australia. A support group, DES Action Australia, has been set up to increase awareness of DES-related health issues, and to lobby for a national register of DES-affected patients.

If you believe you may have been exposed to DES in-utero, Better Health Victoria recommend seeing your family doctor and asking for a referral to a specialist with experience in DES-related issues.

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