“You can’t expel new Covid medications … have they forgotten thalidomide?” warns Jacqueline Fleming, the woman from Northern Ireland
A survivor of thalidomide from Northern Ireland has urged scientists to be wary of administering a vaccine for Covid-19.
acqueline Fleming was born with reduced arms and twisted hands after her mother was prescribed the drug during pregnancy in the early 1960s.
About 10,000 babies worldwide were affected in the same way.
It later turned out that thalidomide had not been well tested in humans, and Ms. Fleming told the Belfast Telegraph that what happened to her should be a grim warning to drug companies currently racing to find a coronavirus drug.
“Didn’t they learn from that 60 years ago?” she said.
“Didn’t they learn from the mistakes?
“I don’t think a drug should come on the market unless it’s been well tested.”
Ms. Fleming, 58, said that updates on potential vaccines, which should take years to become perfect, but could hit the market next year, “made her sick”, especially since her own daughter is now expecting her first child.
The expectant grandmother was born around the same time that thalidomide, a so-called “miracle cure” for illness during pregnancy, was withdrawn from the market.
However, by the time the shocking side effects were discovered, thousands of babies in the 46 countries where it was available as an over-the-counter medicine had died or were born with severe birth defects.
It is estimated that 2,000 infants were affected in the UK, with fewer than 500 still alive.
Ms. Fleming said her pregnant mother Ida took it because “she was severely ill,” adding that “she only took one pill,” which led to phocomelia, the failure of the fetal limbs to develop properly.
“If you were born without arms or legs, your mom would have taken two pills,” said the Co Down artist.
It was later found that thalidomide, manufactured by the German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal GmbH, had released the drug from extensive animal studies, but not from humans.
Despite the scandal and tragedy involved, thalidomide is still used as an effective treatment for specific medical conditions, including some cancers.
One of the most difficult things for Fleming to forgive is the fact that thalidomide was still being distributed to humans, despite reservations about its use at the time.
“The government knew there were problems with the drug when we had it,” she said.
“If they had taken notice of thalidomide when they were first told about it, I think half of us wouldn’t have been born this way. But haven’t they learned from that? “
Early trial results from the two main vaccine candidates – one developed by Oxford University and the other by Chinese company CanSino Biologics – showed that both were safe and could cause immune responses in participants.
However, the next stage will be critical to prove that the potential vaccines can actually protect against infections.
In normal circumstances, vaccine development is a long, complex process, often lasting ten years or more.
But now that Covid-19 has infected 15.5 million people worldwide and with more than 633,000 registered deaths, scientists are under pressure to produce an effective antidote within months.
The news of the vaccine race is something Jacqueline admits she thinks about – it would be her “worst nightmare” if history ever repeats – and her sensitivities may be more alert than usual as she prepares to to become a grandmother for the first time in November.
Daughter Sarah, who lives in Scotland, is expecting a boy and Jacqueline said, “Because of Covid, I haven’t seen her since she told me she was pregnant, so I’d like to go in a few weeks, depending on the lockdown restrictions.”
Growing up, Jacqueline, who has three children – Sarah (38), Charlotte (33) and Conor (29) said she and her mom never talked about thalidomide – let alone the catastrophic effects on her.
However, she did reveal details of “the only conversation I had with my father about it,” and recalled how little pity there was for those born with her condition at the time.
“Dad said when he got to the hospital he gave the nurse his name and she said, ‘Oh, that’s the poor baby,’ said Mrs. Fleming.
“Later, he told me that the walk up the hospital stairs was the longest walk of his life at the time. Then he said to me, “but you had arms … little ones.”
In addition to being in constant pain as a result of her lifelong physical defects, the mother of three also spoke of her mental anxiety during a very difficult time when her oldest child was having problems in school.
“I was told by a teacher that she was being bullied for being the way I was and there was nothing I could do about it,” said Jacqueline. The divorced woman, who lives in Ballyfrenis, said her first realization that she was “different from other people” was from the birth of her sister, who is nine years younger.
“When she was born, I remember asking how many fingers she had,” said Fleming.
“I don’t know why I asked that. I remember being almost disappointed that she was the same as everyone else. It’s really crazy, isn’t it? “
Despite her challenges, not least because she has to take pain killers “to get out of bed in the morning,” Ms. Fleming, who has asthma and isolates herself during the pandemic, has always remained positive.
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in pain,” she said.
“I was giving birth with my first child and I didn’t know. I thought it was a backache.
“They said ‘no, you are in full work.'”
Nevertheless, Jacqueline, who has undergone seven major surgeries, said Covid should remind her of her limitations.
“I got a new kitchen just before closing,” she said.
“Then I had no kitchen for three months and I realized how vulnerable I was.
“It’s over now, thank goodness. I can achieve anything.
“It’s exactly what I wanted.”