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DES Daughters are all the women born between 1938 and 1978 who have been exposed in utero to the anti miscarriage drug and man-made estrogen Diethylstilbestrol (or DES in short) . They live in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Europe and all corners of the world where the drug was prescribed decades ago during pregnancy.
Click on an image above to read inspiring life stories of DES Daughters on Scoop.it.
The DES (Diethylstilbestrol) Drug Disaster, 40 Years Later
Below is a guest post from DES Daughter and WONDER DRUG screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy.
The DES Tragedy Is Far From Over
By Caitlin McCarthy
April 22, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the DES cancer link being made at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. DES (diethylstilbestrol), a toxic and carcinogenic synthetic estrogen, is considered the world’s first drug disaster. It was prescribed to millions of pregnant women for decades: from 1938 until 1971 (and in a small number of cases for several years thereafter) in the United States; and until the mid-1980s in parts of Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the Third World. The currently proven effects of exposure include a rare vaginal cancer in DES Daughters; greater risk for breast cancer in DES Mothers; possible risk for testicular cancer in DES Sons; abnormal reproductive organs; infertility; high-risk pregnancies; and an increased risk for breast cancer in DES Daughters after age 40. There are a number of other suspected effects, including auto-immune disorders, but many of these effects are still awaiting further research.
I’m a DES Daughter who was born at the tail end of the tragedy in the U.S. My mother was unknowingly prescribed a prenatal vitamin which contained DES. I didn’t discover my DES exposure until 2005, when a doctor made the connection during a colposcopy. How scary is that?
What’s even scarier is that I’m not alone. Around the world, there are thousands – maybe even millions – of people walking around today, totally unaware that they, too, were exposed to DES. All of these people are not receiving proper medical treatment, or making truly informed decisions about their healthcare, as a result.
In an effort to raise awareness about DES, I wrote a feature film screenplay entitled WONDER DRUG. Set in Boston, Massachusetts, WONDER DRUG interweaves the lives of a Big Pharma executive, feminist doctor, and thirtysomething newlywed across different decades. The script has won awards or received nominations in over 20 international film festival screenplay competitions and labs, including selection as an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation script for the prestigious Hamptons Screenwriters Lab, and a live staged reading of select scenes at the 15th Annual Hamptons International Film Festival, sponsored by the Sloan Foundation and starring Steve Guttenberg (THREE MEN AND A BABY) and Alysia Reiner (SIDEWAYS). Acclaimed independent director Tom Gilroy (SPRING FORWARD) has expressed an interest in directing WONDER DRUG. All we need now is financing. (Producers can contact me via my official website: www.caitlinmccarthy.com.)
I also worked jointly with the offices of US Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Scott Brown (R-MA) on obtaining an apology from the FDA for the DES drug disaster. That effort was first publicized on acclaimed author Elizabeth Searle’s website, and later picked up by renowned media outlets such as The Huffington Post.. (Thank you, Diana Bianchini, for writing the HuffPo piece!).
The FDA declined to apologize, but did send a three-page letter to Senators Kerry and Brown acknowledging DES as a “tragedy” on February 22, 2011. Upon reading the FDA acknowledgement, I immediately emailed Jeanne Ireland (who signed the FDA’s letter), asking the FDA to remove DES from its webpage touting DES as one of its milestones in “100 Years of Promoting and Protecting Women’s Health.” Jeanne Ireland didn’t respond to me. Instead, she palmed me off on Marsha B. Henderson, Associate Commissioner for Women’s Health (Acting) for the FDA. (Check out the communication between Caitlin and Ms. Henderson by reading the post: The FDA is lying by omission).
To this day, the offensive item about DES remains on the FDA’s website. And to this day, not one drug company has ever apologized or accepted responsibility for the DES tragedy. Nevertheless, they have paid millions in verdicts and out-of-court settlements to DES Daughters and Sons who suffered injuries from their exposure.
I am grateful that the 40th anniversary of the DES cancer link has triggered a flurry of press coverage. The Boston Globe recently ran a feature story about concerns for third generation effects; WCVB-TV Boston’s “Chronicle” newsmagazine aired a DES segment; Reuters published an item about DES Grandsons; New England Journal of Medicine ran an article about living with DES exposure; and Psychology Today features a story about remembering DES’s “tragic chapter in American childbirth.” Even the old “Lou Grant” TV episode about DES is making the rounds on Hulu.
On April 25, 1985, Ronald Reagan was the only US President to proclaim a National DES Awareness Week. No other president has ever done that. Why? DES is far from a dead issue.
I will continue my fight to raise awareness about the DES drug disaster. DES victims are the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to synthetic estrogen. The reproductive abnormalities, cancers, and infertility we deal with daily show what could happen to the human race if we don’t employ the precautionary principle. It suggests we act to protect public health when there is credible evidence of harm, rather than wait for absolute proof. What we do now clearly has an impact on future generations. Please join this fight with me.
ABOUT CAITLIN MCCARTHY:
Caitlin McCarthy received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Emerson College, which is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best graduate programs in the country. An award-winning screenwriter at international film festivals and labs, Caitlin has a screenplay project in development: RESISTANCE with Populus Pictures and director Si Wall (SPEED DATE; THE DINNER PARTY). In addition to screenwriting, Caitlin serves as an English teacher at an inner-city public high school. Prior to education, Caitlin worked in public relations, where she fostered relationships with the press and crafted messages for companies that were delivered worldwide.
This week I am honoured to publish a guest post from Carol Devine, DES daughter, Founder and Coordinator of the Sydney based group, DES Action Australia-NSW, which formed in 1995. Many people, including those unaffected by Diethylstilbestrol I am sure will be interested in reading Carol’s post as it shows how long and difficult the road is for a DES activist advocating for the needs of DES exposed people in Australia.
DES Activist outside USA – An Australian Journey
It is my impression that in comparison with USA, the downplaying, dismissiveness and resistance by governments in countries outside USA to the DES exposure issue have been stauncher. In Australia, to the demise of our comparatively smaller DES exposed population, the DES problem has been minimised, even with the glib remark, “It’s only a problem in USA”. Cold and uncaring comments that disenfranchise DES exposed Australians, have possibly evolved from something that runs much deeper and are firmly entrenched.
My pet theory is: that from the time the DES cancer link was made in USA in 1971, until the time this causal link first reached the news media in other DES-affected countries, drug companies and those with vested interest exerted utmost damage control outside USA. In concentrated effort, every opportunity would have been taken within this bonus timeframe to use influence to ensure government ideas on managing the DES exposure problem would protect those companies. Those ideas by government would be “set in concrete” for all time. Just a theory of mine – it’s no rocket science! However, it seeks to explain those cold, uncaring comments and the horrific facts revealed when our DES Action group in NSW, Australia, accessed government documents. It might also explain the uncanny similarity in the worded government responses to DES Action UK and DES Action Australia-NSW.
To be frank, from my viewpoint, the journey for an activist advocating for the needs of DES exposed people to government is like “banging your head against a brick wall” – many times. However, there may be greater chance of some success by developing the strongest possible argument when lobbying government. This means having the best available information. For this, it means digging – a lot.
Digging for numbers
Citing the best feasible estimate of the extent of the DES exposure in Australia is absolutely necessary for government recognition of the DES problem. No numbers equates to having no significant problems, or even not to exist at all. In Australia, to obtain an estimate, the most reliable data sources are the general population health data (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare -established 1982) for incidence of clear cell adenocarcinoma vagina/cervix and the State Cancer Registries (prior to 1982). Reports offering an estimate by cancer experts to government have been found to be grossly inaccurate. Adverse drug reaction reports are also unreliable, since cases of the DES associated cancer are not always reported by medical professionals. Delving into government comments about any unusual data trends and investigating inconsistencies with data have been important. By delving it was found that in the early 1980s, a doctor phoned the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to instruct that reports of DES associated cancer no longer be recorded. To our dismay, the TGA (Australia’s drug watchdog) complied with this.
Digging for history
It makes sense in advocacy to know the full inside story of previous management. In Australia, Freedom of Information applications were necessary to obtain committee minutes of the TGA in relation to how the DES problem has been addressed since 1971. The minutes are all-telling and disturbing for everyone affected by DES, uncovering many shocking revelations. However, the information contained is very necessary in providing a baseline for approaches in lobbying. These documents showed the TGA’s first decision was to take a reactive role to any media arising about DES, rather a proactive role in issuing media releases. This decision was made out of consideration of the possibility of creating alarm.
Our Lobbying Experience
With strong argument for improved management of the DES problem, the government still manages to duck and weave continually. The experience is of “going around in circles”, whilst at the same time, trying to become familiar with the unreliable government “machine”. Astonishingly, the DES issue is shoved aside by individuals holding government positions with roles appropriate to giving attention to the DES problem. In the trial and error process of lobbying, the problem is finding exactly where the DES issue can position itself. DES Action Australia-NSW has recently presented the DES issue for the attention of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner. In spite of the many negative aspects of the lobbying experience mentioned in this article, there is still to this day, no reason to stop these endeavours on behalf of DES exposed people.
Importance of networking
If situations and experiences are similar, the power of networking can never be underestimated. Together, there can be learning from each other’s successes and failures. It is my hope that by sharing our experience, it will encourage networking between activists for the DES cause, and in particular, between activists outside USA.
Celebrate DES mothers & daughters who advocate for all DES victims!
Tuesday 8th March 2011 marks the centenary of International Women’s Day (IWD). Celebratory events are taking place across the world marking women’s achievements and contributions to society.
Since 1911, International Women’s Day offers the perfect opportunity to appreciate the women who have the biggest influence in our lives whether they are politicians who are a making difference in our local community, celebrities we admire, or simply mums and grandmas who balance work and home beautifully or to whom we look up to.
This Tuesday 08th March, why not make International Women Day 2011, a day to celebrate DES mothers and DES daughters.
Join “Journal of a DES Daughter” in celebrating the courage of all the women who find the strength to fight every day against the devastating side effects of diethylstilbestrol and acknowledging the tremendous work of those who dedicate their lives to advocate for the victims of the DES tragedy.
Join the International Women’s Day celebrations by:
Attending the facebook event“Journal of a DES Daughter – International Women’s Day”
Changing your facebook status to read: “Today I celebrate International Women’s Day and the DES mothers and daughters who advocate for all the DES victims”.
Let’s celebrate women such as Val Pat Cody (health activist and co-founder of DES Action USA who sadly passed away in September 2010), Anne Levadou (President of DES Network France), Andrea Goldstein (DES activist and DES historian), Carol Devine (founder and coordinator of DES Action Australia – NSW) and Caitlin McCarthy (award winning screenwiter currently working on Wonder Drug the true story of DES); as well as all the activist women who contribute to raising awareness about DES exposure and speak out on behalf of all the DES victims.
These women who give their lives to help others are a true inspiration to me and I am sure to many of us. Carol Devine comments on her blog: “Pat was a remarkable women. During the process of our establishing DES Action Australia-NSW, Pat was a great mentor and friend. If not for her invaluable ideas and encouragement, the group may not have lifted off the ground. She will be very much missed“.
The Food and Drug Administration claims historical step with DES diethylstilbestrol
In 1971, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that diethylstilbestrol (DES) was unsafe for pregnant women. Exposed in the womb to DES, the daughters developed a rare form of vaginal cancer and suffered from many more DES side effects. The FDA changed the labelling on this hormone to warn women against taking this drug during pregnancy.
40 years later, on February 22nd 2011, the FDA acknowledged the DES “tragedy”.
Caitlin McCarthy, an award winning screenwriter currently working on the issue of DES, emailed Jeanne Ireland who signed the FDA’s letter of apology, asking the FDA to remove DES from its webpage touting DES as one of its milestones in “100 Years of Promoting and Protecting Women’s Health”:
Here’s what the FDA emailed back:
Dear Ms. McCarthy,
Thank you for your email. Please be assured that we acknowledge the tragedy of DES. However, it marks an important historical step when FDA took action to stop the use of DES in pregnancy, and to limit its use. This was a real benefit to the health of women and their children. You will notice other milestones described on our website that detail FDA’s authority in response to major tragedies such as Elixir Sulfanilamide,Thalidomide, and the Dalcon Shield. We do not consider the highlighting of these milestones as accolades, but rather learning milestones for the medical community, the public and the world. They serve to make FDA even more vigorous and proactive in implementing strategies to identify products that may have hidden cancer causing potential or serious long-term health problems. In light of this historical record our description will remain on the FDA/OWH website.
Marsha B. Henderson
Assoc. Commissioner for Women’s Health (Acting)
US Food and Drug Administration
Below is what Caitlin sent Ms. Henderson, along with the two women she copied on her email to her (Terrie Crescenzi and Deborah Kallgren). Note she also included Jeanne Ireland.
You are clearly hoping that the general public thinks a “contraindication for pregnancy” was a “real benefit to the health of women and their children.” Hardly. BANNING the toxic, carcinogenic DES would have been the “real health benefit.” The FDA is lying by omission.
DES should have been banned. There were some doctors in the US who continued to prescribe it after the FDA’s “important historical step,” up until 1980 in some places. And DES continued to be prescribed until the mid-1980s in parts of Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the Third World.
Some advice: When writing to DES victims moving forward, don’t use phrases like “learning milestone.” That is dismissive of the currently proven effects of exposure which include a rare vaginal cancer in DES Daughters; greater risk for breast cancer in DES Mothers; possible risk for testicular cancer in DES Sons; abnormal reproductive organs; infertility; high-risk pregnancies; and an increased risk for breast cancer in DES Daughters after age 40. There are a number of other suspected effects, including auto-immune disorders, but many of these effects are still awaiting further research.
I’ll be sure to share the FDA’s response with others, seeing how you’re sending this canned response out to others who asked the FDA to remove the offensive DES “milestone.”
Thanks for caring about women’s health (not!).
The Food and Drug Administration email is shocking! I was born in France in 1971 where the DES drug continued to be prescribed until 1977 not only to my Mum but to more than 200,000 women … Where are the health benefits of their “action” for the DES mothers, DES daughters and sons born in France and in many other countries after the warning was issued? DES should have been banned.
A big THANK YOU goes to Caitlin for speaking out on behalf of all the DES victims!