The Death and Afterlife of Thalidomide

The New York Times posted a fascinating and heartbreaking mini-documentary on thalidomide. Once a popular and useful medication, thalidomide became infamous for the severe physical birth defects it causes when taken by pregnant women. You may have heard of this drug. What you might not know is that it is still manufactured for limited use in the treatment of several conditions, including leprosy.

Before making apps and before working as an ICU nurse, I worked as a pharmacy technician at a small town pharmacy. We carried thalidomide, if I recall correctly. Drugs like thalidomide (or Accutane, a commonly-prescribed acne medication with similar risks of devastating birth defects) are dispensed with extreme caution, even in a small town pharmacy. There’s a mind-boggling amount of paperwork and patient education every time someone is prescribed one of these drugs.

Not all drugs are this dangerous, but it’s still a good idea to understand any drugs you take regularly. Don’t hesitate to visit your pharmacist and ask her questions.

Pro tip: ask your pharmacist for one of the manufacturer’s drug information pamphlets — not the consumer pamphlets, but the richly-detailed ones that are printed on thin white paper, folded into stout squares, and glued to the backs of medical-grade drug packaging. The pharmacy probably throws most of these in the trash anyway. They have great summaries of the side effects seen during clinical trials, including comments on which ones were most frequently reported. Much of it is readable to a layperson, if you’re determined to learn something. You can see one in this photo, taped to the top of the small amoxicillin bottle.

Another pro tip: only capitalize brand names for drugs. Generic names should be set in lowercase.

|  23 Sep 2013