2015 saw a twenty-fold increase of microcephaly in Brazilian newborns. A WHO report states with scientific consensus that the Zika virus is the cause for microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome, while further neurological disorders are potentially linked. An article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association seeks to uncover what we might learn about Zika as this cohort of babies age and what similarities can be found in the Thalidomide crisis of the 1960s.
Hailed as the ‘worst man-made peacetime disaster in history,’ thalidomide was manufactured and marketed by a German pharmaceutical company as a safe and effective sleeping pill and anti-nausea drug for pregnant women. Thalidomide was widely available in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the United States, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia resulting in the birth of as many as 20,000 babies with crippling deformities. Thalidomide was banned in 1962.
For most, the story ends there. Now, 60 years later, there are only a few thousand thalidomide survivors – known as thalidomiders – left. They’ve taken to the Internet to share their stories which you can read here, here, and here. Amidst stories of institutionalization and acceptance is a common theme: healthcare costs associated with a debilitating condition. Many suffer from chronic joint ailments that make day-to-day living more difficult as they age.
What can researchers learn from thalidomide? Like the Zika virus itself, much is left to be discovered.
In many ways, thalidomide survivors thrived. They married, became parents, had careers, and hobbies. Microcephaly doesn’t hold such promise for the future. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, microcephaly associated with Zika is likely to be severe and require lifelong intensive care.
The healthcare costs of thalidomide is hard to quantify. Mostly of normal intelligence, thalidomiders attended mainstream schools. Many developed ingenious adaptations to overcome the vagaries of everyday life. There is no way to know how much money will be needed to care for children with special needs caused by Zika. Globally children with special needs are the most vulnerable population. They have less access to healthcare and education and face more discrimination and violence than peers.
With so much focus on microcephaly, how might Zika influence the developing brains of healthy infants and children? Studying differences in outcomes of typical children and those with microcephaly will be key to developing treatment methods. Does Zika have the potential to cause more damage than thalidomide? Just ask a pediatric neurologist:
“Depending on the rapidity with which an effective vaccine can be developed and distributed effectively, the ability to marshal resources to do appropriate science, and large-scale prevention efforts, Zika has the potential to be much worse and to have an impact that continues over a much longer period of time.”
Interested in learning more about thalidomide? Check out this great video from The New York Times Retro Report: