thalidomide (thəlĭdˈəmĭdˌ) [key], sleep-inducing drug found to produce skeletal defects in developing fetuses. The drug was marketed in Europe, especially in West Germany and Britain, from 1957 to 1961, and was thought to be so safe that it was sold without prescription. In 1961 an extremely high incidence of European babies born with malformed, shortened limbs was correlated with use of thalidomide by women in their first trimester of pregnancy. Before it was recalled from use the drug had caused the malformation of about 8,000 children throughout the world.
Thalidomide never entirely disappeared from use, however, and it was later found to benefit some leprosy patients. In 1998, after a complex safety monitoring system had been established to prevent further birth defects, thalidomide was approved for use in the United States for a complication of leprosy. The drug is also used to treat multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects the bone marrow.
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