HL Deb 22 March 1962 vol 238 cc632-4

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether their attention has been drawn to the presence of congenital fœtal abnormalities, following the medication of the expectant mother with Distaval, and whether this substance is still available to the public.]


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are aware of reports of an association between the taking of Distaval in early pregnancy and the occurrence of severe abnormalities in newborn babies. The firm concerned withdrew the drug completely at the end of November, 1961, as soon as German reports of such a possibility came to notice, and before any similar reports had arisen in the United Kingdom.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that medical authorities have only just been able to associate the taking of this drug by women in the early periods of pregnancy and the malformations in infants to which they have given birth? Does the noble Lord not think that this is another case where the pharmaceutical industry has been given complete freedom to put on the market drugs which have not had an adequate clinical trial? Also, has not the time come when the Minister should tell the pharmaceutical industry that in no circumstances must it continue this practice?


My Lords, I do not think I could agree with what the noble Baroness has said in the latter part of her supplementary question. It is perfectly true that this apparent association has only recently come to light, but it is quite clear to me that until this drug was withdrawn, and during the time it was in use, its availability was welcomed by the medical profession. In an article in the Lancet of February 10, the writer said that: It is disturbing that such an apparently innocuous drug as thalidamide with no known toxic dose may disturb the growth of limb buds and other tissues at a certain phase of development. The drug was developed by German scientists, and in this country by the Distillers' Company, and there is no doubt that their research and development teams consist of first-class scientists. I am advised that the initial experimental work was done meticulously, and that the preliminary clinical trials were carried out by doctors who were wholly independent of the pharmaceutical firm which developed the drug.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that doctors who prescribe this know little about the research, because they are not in that field; they are simply guided by the high-pressure salesmen who are sent round by the pharmaceutical industry? Doctors throughout the country to-day are prescribing proprietary drugs Which have not had adequate clinical trials. I have said before that the public must be protected from the pharmaceutical industry, which appears to be quite ruthless in this matter.


My Lords, I cannot agree that in this case there seem to have been inadequate clinical trials. It is the case that new drugs and potent drugs have brought great benefit in the medical treatment of people. Unhappily, risks of the sort we have been discussing this afternoon may sometimes be part of the cost of pharmaceutical progress. I have said that the most that can be done is to exercise the greatest caution in launching these new preparations, and there is nothing to suggest that the firm concerned did not do precisely that in this case.


Very unsatisfactory!