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Two boxes of ‘Distaval Forte’ thalidomide tablets, England, 1958-1962

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, thalidomide was given to pregnant women in several countries to help ease morning sickness. Unfortunately, the drug actually caused thousands of serious birth defects across the world, four hundred of those occurring in the United Kingdom. Babies were born with under-developed or missing limbs and for this reason the drug was withdrawn from use in 1962. In the following years those affected by the drug fought a long battle for compensation. Thalidomide is used today to treat leprosy, HIV infections and some forms of bone marrow cancers, but only under strictly controlled conditions. This box of ‘Distaval Forte’ tablets was made by The Distillers Co Ltd.

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    Glossary: leprosy

    A chronic disease that affects the skin, mucous membrane and nerves. It is now confined mainly to the tropics and is transmitted by direct contact. Previously a widely feared disease, leprosy is not highly infectious.

    Glossary: cancer

    Any cancerous tumour. It arises from the abnormal and uncontrolled division of cells which then invade and destroy the surrounding tissues. Cancer cells spread and can form secondary tumours some distance from the original.

    Glossary: thalidomide

    A drug that was prescribed in the 1950s and 60s as a sedative for pregnant women. Thalidomide was supposed to relieve symptoms of morning sickness. However, it led to birth defects among babies, and was banned. Since 1998, the drug has been avaliable to treat other conditions, but its prescription is highly regulated.