Sunday March 18th 2018

Fear Mongering In The Press

Provincial health ministries are being urged to embrace a controversial new treatment for multiple sclerosis. Called vascular liberation, the procedure involves unclogging veins that lead from the brain. Desperate Canadian MS patients are flying to other countries for treatment. The Saskatchewan government has announced that surgical trials will be held shortly.

The problem is there are no scientifically credible studies that show the technique works. And history has shown the risks when new treatments are sanctioned too quickly.

In 1957, German manufacturers developed a new drug called Contergan. It was a tranquilizer and painkiller and also prescribed to thousands of pregnant women to treat morning sickness.

But Contergan, or thalidomide as it is known in North America, causes birth defects. It can be taken by non-pregnant women without risk and is still prescribed for the treatment of cancer.

And even for expectant mothers, there is only a two-week danger period. Before and after that window, thalidomide is no threat.

But fetal limbs develop between the 35th and 49th day of pregnancy. If thalidomide is used during that time, it can wreak havoc.

The progression of impacts makes grim reading: Between the 35th and 37th day, absence of ears and deafness; between the 39th and 41st, absence of arms; during the 43rd and 44th days, hands misshapen as flippers.

Almost 40 per cent of the victims died before their first birthday.

Researchers didn’t know that drugs could cross the placental barrier between mother and fetus. As a result, thalidomide was licensed in Britain, Europe and Canada before meaningful research was conducted.

But in the U.S., a young medical officer named Frances Kelsey was assigned the thalidomide file.

Frances Oldham (her maiden name) was born and raised in Cobble Hill. She attended St. Margaret’s School in Victoria in the 1920s, then studied science at McGill University in Montreal. She was offered a fellowship at the University of Chicago (by mistake — they assumed from the name on her application that she was a man) and married there.

In 1960, Kelsey was hired by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Richardson-Merrell pharmaceutical company had just purchased North American rights for thalidomide and wanted permission to market the drug immediately.

The application landed on her desk. After studying the impact of drugs on pregnant rabbits, Kelsey became convinced that fetuses are not immune. She also knew that thalidomide might cause tingling in the extremities, a sign of possible nerve damage.

Although it was only her first month on the job, she turned Richardson-Merrell down.

Huge pressure was brought to bear. For two years, the company hammered away and demanded a licence. But Kelsey continually asked questions and refused to cave in.

And by doing so, she saved hundreds of American children from deformity.

In the spring of 1962, the dreadful truth came out. Kelsey had been right.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 children were affected around the world. By a sad irony, some were Canadian. Thalidomide was licensed in this country and more than 100 children suffered birth defects.

Frances Kelsey was a public health official who insisted that evidence, rather than pressure, should guide her decisions. Aged 96, Kelsey lives today in Maryland.

Her efforts 50 years ago should remind us today of the need for caution in assessing medical treatments — and that one determined, ethical person can make a huge difference.

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5 Comments for “Fear Mongering In The Press”

  • Lisa says:

    I think we are getting way off base here. We are talking about a procedure NOT a drug which could cause some very nasty side effects. Angioplasty has been performed for years with no dire side effects like those caused by drugs.

  • Helen Erickson says:

    I completely agree with Lisa – this story is a sad attempt at distorting the real issue. No matter how we look at CCSVI it is balloon angioplasty, a treatment that’s been successfully used for over 30 years and still helps hundreds of people in Canada every day. The fact that anyone who needs a blockage cleared can have it done, EXCEPT PEOPLE WITH M.S., is the issue. Sadly, the Canadian government and the M.S. Society have deemed it their responsibility not to allow these Canadians, people with M.S., their right to choose what they want. People with M.S. are not only being denied a life saving treatment but face blatant discrimination. Being advised caution is ludicrous when there are worse things at stake…

  • Steve says:

    “In 1957, German manufacturers developed a new drug called Contergan” Is that all they can come up with? That is almost laughable (but I am not laughing)What does this have to do with the liberation therapy? If that is all these Big Pharma and Health Care authorities can throw back then the procedure must work! Big Pharma can’t even come up with a good lie for this one. BIG PHARMA is corrupt and has no interest in curing anything. They are profit driven and nothing else. Disease is profit so why cure them if they can make billions containing them? Rise up people with MS and expose the deceipt of BIG PHARMA and all the organizations that bow to them I am with you .. Steve

  • Robert Kroeker says:

    I like the story. I am impressed with the young lady written about, but not the application of it. The story could be taken as an example of the need to stand up to the big pharmaceutical companies as supporters of the CCSVI theory are doing. There are many examples of people fighting against the “medical establishment” to bring forward important procedures. Yes, we need to be careful, but not so careful that we prematurely squash a procedure that could save thousands of Canadians from a life in a wheelchair.

  • Dagmar Lofts says:

    This story tries to compare apples to oranges. Since when is a procedure to improve blood flow related to an untested drug for an expectant mother, which in hindsight affected both the mother and her child. That should have been thoroughly studied. Why was it passed. I do not believe that the expectant mothers would have died without the drug, as some MS patients might without the procedure.

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