DES National Public Education Campaigns

Listen to the short radio interview featuring Carol Devine, founder and coordinator of DES Action Australia (NSW), and Dr Jules Black, Queensland Gyneocologist and sexuality expert, about the silence around the DES issue and the difficulties to push for a much needed Australian DES National Public Education Campaign 10 years after the USA first DES national campaign launched in 2001. In Australia it is estimated that 740,000 people have been exposed to DES diethylstilbestrol, yet no such campaign has been held. These people are not receiving proper medical treatment, or making truly informed decisions about their healthcare, as a result.

Culture of Silence on sex hormone link to cancerRadio Interview about DES featuring Carol Devine and Dr Jules Black, produced by Annamarie Reyes April 05th, 2011.

Below is a short summary and a few quotes from this interesting radio interview from down under:

DES National Public Education Campaigns or the Wall of Silence

The USA has moved to legislate to make it compulsory that a DES National Public Education Campaign is held for DES affected communities. Dr Black explains that the USA acting first on public campaigns came out of increased pressure amongst affected women in the number of millions. In Australia he says “I found constantly with my patients a wall of silence”.

“Since the Food and Drug Administration approved this drug it was important for them to make sure this drug was ok (…). It wasn’t (…). There was a certain degree of cover up fear at first but then when the story came out and due to pressure by female organisations, support groups and so on, they admitted”, comments Dr Black. The FDA acknowledged the DES tragedy 40 years after they issued a warning about the DES cancer link.

The equivalent support group in Australia pushing for change is DES Action Australia (NSW). Carol Devine, the coordinator, explains the strugle to put the issue on the public agenda since the 1970’s when the issue came to light. The USA could not keep it quiet anymore. Too many people were affected by Diethylstilbestrol exposure. The USA went as far as holding a DES National Public Education Campaign in 2001 which led to legislate that research should happen and DES and potential DES affected people should be informed. “Over there”, comments Carol Devine, there is a fantastic body of women called DES Action USA. They are all right behind making sure these things happen in the USA”. In Australia, Carol Devine sent all the documentation papers about the USA DES National Public Education Campaign to the Australian Federal Health Minister. A few days later she received the package back in her doorstep saying “We do not require these”. “It has been a total shut down on this issue in Australia and quite frankly this is a national disgrace” comments Carol. Advocates in Australia have no choice but take the matters to the Human Rights Commission.

What’s the situation in France and Europe?

Reseau DES France educational brochure front cover image

In France and in other parts of Europe, the FDA warning issued in 1971 about the health concerns related to Di-ethyl Stilbestrol didn’t get heard and the drug continued to be prescribed to pregnant women until the late 1970’s early 1980’s. The support group Réseau DES France was established in 1994. Their first DES public education campaign was launched in 1997 with the brochure “DES Distilbène® Exposure, the questions you ask yourself” aimed at raising DES awareness amongst the general public. Since 1994 Réseau DES France has engaged in many areas (information, cooperation, advocacy and lobbying, and DES lawsuits to name just a few). They’ve achieved many results and successes such a the right to longer maternity leave for DES pregnancies.

In the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands support groups have also been created. DES Action UK launched a petition in 2009 to demand a Public Enquiry aimed at investigating the effects of the drug diethylstilboestrol (DES) on women. They collected 130 signatures. “The government statistics are hopelessly out of date and information is not freely or widely made available by the government” write the petition creators Nick de Bois and Barbara Killick.

I can’t stress enough the importance and crucial need for efficient DES National Public Education Campaigns to ensure all people affected by DES exposure are aware of its side effects for them and their children. Collaboration between DES Action groups is also very important. The silence around the DES issue poses health risks in itself as many people including doctors don’t even know what DES is, what the health risks are, and how to prevent them. With so many people affected by it, and so few aware that they have been exposed, it is the responsibility of our governments to raise public awareness of this global health catastrophe.

I wish DES Action Australia (NSW) the very best of luck with their battle for an Australian DES National Public Education Campaign and hope more DES daughters and sons will make their voice heard. We are not alone in this; Millions of people around the world have been exposed to DES so surely if we shout loud enough we will be heard not only by governments but also by fellow DES victims unaware of their DES exposure and its health risks.

Sources: Réseau DES France, DES Action Australia (NSW), DES Action UK

DES Cancer Link 40th Anniversary

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

Caitlin McCarthy cover page Boston Globe image
In the April 18, 2011 issue of The Boston Globe, WONDER DRUG screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy appeared on the cover and in the feature story about DES

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.

Caitlin McCarthy ImageABOUT 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.

DES, Guilt, Fear, and other Emotions

The results of a recent French study highlighting the psychological problems associated with exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES) and other synthetic sex hormones really confused me. Even though it may be extremely difficult to scientifically establish a strong link between DES exposure and mental health for many reasons, one just needs to read or listen to the stories of DES victims to realise how badly these victims have been affected not only physically but mentally. All these stories have one thing in common, they all tell a story of guilt, anxiety and fear.

Guilt: most DES mothers and daughters blame themselves

DES-exposed individuals' emotions guilt, fear, anxiety, stress, anger, and frustration image
Emotions felt by DES victims include guilt, fear, anxiety, stress, anger, and frustration - image source Scientific American

How would you feel as a mum if because of a drug that you took during pregnancy, your child is suffering from cancer, fertility problems, and / or psychiatric disorders? Most mothers who took what was believed to be at the time a revolutionary drug to stop them miscarrying, are understandably feeling guilt and struggle in their day to day life to cope with the burden of this guilt pushing some of them to the brink of depression. Most of the time, it affects their relationship with their daughters and sons. Even though I get on really well with my mum, DES has definitely left a dark cloud on our relationship. A life with DES and its consequences is not what she wanted for me and my husband. For the great sadness deeply felt when I miscarried, all the tears when I thought I would never have a child, the stress of a surgery, the constant anxiety during a high risk pregnancy, how could I blame my mum when she was just following in good faith and trust her doctor’s prescription? Yet, she keeps feeling sorry for me and apologizing for all the troubles caused by Distilbène® (the French name under which DES was prescribed to pregnant women in France until 1977).

My mum, unlike many other DES mothers, didn’t grief a daughter killed by one of the most devastating side effects of diethylstilbestrol: vaginal cancer (ccac). She didn’t go through the psychological pain of accepting that she would never be a grandmother. I, unlike many other DES daughters, never gave birth to a baby born too early to survive because of premature labour (another dreadful consequence of DES exposure). With 3 daughters, I am one of the luckiest DES victims (at least so far …) and I often even question whether I should consider myself as a DES victim when so many women have died or have seen their chances of becoming a mum ruined by the consequences of this drug.

When I read in the book “Moi, Stéphanie, Fille Distilbène” by Stéphanie Chevalier, that I was not the only DES daughter feeling shame and guilt for somehow escaping the worst, it brought tears to my eyes. In her very moving book, Stéphanie tells her DES story but also the story of Véronique who despite a very difficult pregnancy gave birth to a beautiful little boy. Véronique says: “I feel bad that I had a son when so many DES daughters will never know the joy of motherhood”. Stéphanie explains what her lawyer, Mrs Martine Verdier, replied to the DES-exposed daughters and sons invited to discuss DES trials in a meeting organised by the French association “Les Filles Distilbène” of which Stéphanie is President: “There is no such thing as being a “half victim”. What differentiates the DES victims is the extent of the prejudice caused”. Before the joy of giving birth, some women miscarry; others loose a child in the late stage of their pregnancy, many never even have children and divorce as a result but what is sure is that DES-exposed individuals, regardless of the extent of the physical damage caused by the drug, all have to suffer from the psychological consequences of the painful situations that they have to face throughout their lives because of diethysltilbestrol.

To carry on the topic of guilt, what if the third generation (DES grandchildren) have been adversely impacted by DES? What if my daughters are at a higher risk of cancer, what if they too have uterine malformations and won’t be able to have children. Will I feel guilt? My mum didn’t know when she took Distilbène® what the consequences would be. When I had my daughters I knew I had been exposed to DES and I knew there may be consequences on the third generation too. Will they blame me? I don’t even want to think about it…

DES tragedy, who is to blame?

I definitely think the wrong persons are blaming themselves. But who is to blame for the DES tragedy? Doctors who continued to prescribe the drug despite warnings about its side effects? The FDA who didn’t ban it and today recognizes the DES tragedy but refuses to apologize to the victims? The pharmaceutical companies who heavily promoted DES use to doctors? Governments who failed to protect the health of their citizens when health warnings were issued? Am I missing someone? something? So many questions remain unanswered. Surely this drug scandal could have been avoided like many others such as Thalidomide (the sedative drug introduced in the late 1950s and withdrawned in 1961 due to teratogenicity and neuropathy). Surely other people than the DES victims should feel guilt and shouldn’t be sleeping well at night!

DES “Epée de Damoclés”

Anxiety and fear, two more psychological consequences DES-exposed individuals have to deal with. Because of the risks of cancer associated with DES exposure, DES daughters and mothers have to be checked more regularly than other women. I have no doubt that like me they all get very anxious and fear that the results of their regular DES examinations (including smear/pap test, mammogram, etc…) may be positive when they come in. What about the fear of losing a child at any time during a DES pregnancy, the fear of seeing your partner leaving you if you can’t give him a son or a daughter, the fear of what will happen to your children if you die from a cancer caused by DES? The list of these DES related fears and anxieties is long and I am not even mentioning all the other emotions such as anger and frustration often felt by DES victims.

Whilst some people may question the effects of DES exposure on mental health, there is no doubt that diethylstilbestrol has not only caused physical damages to the children born from mothers who took the drug during their pregnancy, but also caused a lot of pain, and psychological suffering in DES mothers, daughters, sons, and their families. Even if there wasn’t any link between DES exposure and mental health which I doubt, the psychological consequences of the problems that DES brought into people’s lives can’t be undermined. More research is needed to establish a link between DES exposure and mental health. In the meantime, the psychological difficulties such as anxiety disorders, depression due to the overwhelming feeling of guilt experienced by DES-exposed individuals must be acknowledged and health care providers should take them into consideration when caring for their DES patients.

French study reveals more damaging DES side effects

Diethylstilbestrol (Distilbène), the synthetic sex hormone prescribed in France up to 1977 (and in many other countries under different names) to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage and premature labour, has caused genital abnormalities, infertility problems, and cancer in children exposed in utero to the drug. A new report reveals that DES may have done even more damage, often associated in cocktail with other estrogens as 17-alpha Ethinyl oestradiol (synthetic EE) or with synthetic Progestin.

Distilbène® DES psychiatric disorders image
Click to watch the M6 Actu DES news in French

A disturbing study conducted since 2004 by Marie-Odile Soyer-Gobillard, former director emeritus at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) reveals a link between DES and mental illness issues. In January 2011, and next in October 2011, 6 members of the association Hhorages (Halt to Synthetic Hormones for Pregnancies), of which Marie-Odile is the president, were received by the AFFSSAPS (the equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. now named AFSM, French Agency for Medicament Security) to discuss her findings. A working group composed of experts from the agency and the association will now be formed in April.

DES Psychological Side Effects New French Stats

So what does the French study (published in the International Journal “Medicine and Longevity*) reveal? Marie-Odile sent questionnaires to 529 DES mothers and studied a group of 1180 children of which 740 have been exposed to DES in-utero. Of this group, 15 were still born and 684 suffer from psychiatric disorders and / or physical malformations while 41 were not ill. Amongst the studied population, the psychiatric illnesses are essentially depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, …). Today, Hhorages tots up 1223 testimonies representing 1223 mothers with a total amount of 2674 children. Amongst them, 1676 were in utero exposed to synthetic hormones, 1549 exposed children are ill: amongst them: 916 present psychic diseases « only », 448 present somatic and psychic diseases , 183 present somatic diseases « only »; 126 exposed are not ill. Amongst the observed siblings in the same family, only those who have not been exposed to DES in-utero, don’t show signs of psychiatric disorders …. Could this be just a coincidence?

Another shocking statistic: of all the cases reported since 2004, when the study started, Marie-Odile identified 150 suicide attempts series and 48 suicides. In some families, 2 or 3 children have ended their lives leaving their parents with a profound sense of guilt. Amongst the observed siblings in the same family, only those who have not been exposed to DES in-utero, don’t show signs of psychiatric disorders… Could this be just a coincidence?

Herself DES mother, Marie-Odile Soyer-Gobillard has been fighting since 1998 for the recognition of the link between synthetic sex hormones taken during her pregnancy including Distilbène®, and the psychological disorders of her own children, Nicolas and Valerie, who both committed suicide three years apart in 1995 and 1998 at age 28 and 27. She founded the association Hhorages with 3 other mothers in 2000 to raise awareness of the risks synthetic sex hormones prescribed during pregnancy pose on children born from these pregnancies.

According to Fran Howell (Executive Director DES Action USA), American researchers have been having trouble finding a solid link between DES and mental illness issues, except depression. But through the years DES Action USA have heard many reports of DES-exposed individuals suffering with psychological issues.

Pat Cody, co-founder of DES Action USA, wrote in the spring 2005 issue of VOICE (DES Action Newsletter) about why it is difficult for researchers to study these questions and develop definitive answers: “Here, some of the difficulties in getting a valid study are caused by a wide spread in the DES dosages mothers got, in the time in pregnancy when they got it, and for how long they took it (…). Sex hormones are, however, known to have effects on the organization of the brain in experimental animals with consequential behavioural effect”.

Distilbène® DES psychiatric disorders image
Click to watch the M6 Actu DES news in French

A 2005 study carried out by Professor Caston, a neurologist at the University of Rouen (France), has demonstrated that rats born to mothers treated with synthetic sex hormones developed anxiety and depressive behaviour. “These results could be explained by the effect of the molecule on the part of the brain involved in emotional processes, which is under development in foetuses”, the report says.

Could all the known DES side effects which have destroyed the lives of many DES mothers, daughters, and sons, just be the top of the iceberg? Already concerns for the grandchildren of DES mothers arise with a higher risk of hypospadias (misplaced opening of the penis) in sons of DES daughters. If more DES side effects are scientifically validated, DES could well be a real time bomb!

I welcome Marie-Odile’s research study and thank her and Hhorages for their combat and work on behalf of all the DES victims who suffer from the mental side effects of this drug.

More research is critically needed not only to provide DES-exposed individuals with appropriate care and support but for the next generation and all the people who may continue to suffer from the physical or mental consequences of this drug in the future. Please support Hhorages and your local DES Action group, and stay tune for more revelations about DES exposure and its devastating side effects.

Sources:

  • DES Action USA Voice newsletter spring 2005
  • DES Action USA
  • Viva Presse.fr
  • M6Bonus.fr
  • Hhorages.

Notes:

*Soyer-Gobillard, M.O. 2011. Endocrine disrupters and effects on behavioral disorders: No, we have not as yet learnt all our lessons concerning the DES story. Médecine et Longévité, (Elsevier Masson), 3, 67-74.
** Nicolas Kalfa, M.D., Ph.D,.Francoise Paris, M.D., Marie-Odile Soyer-Gobillard, Ph.D., Jean-Pierre Daures, M.D., Ph.D. and Charles Sultan, M.D., Ph.D. Prevalence of hypospadias in grandsons of women exposed to diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy: a multigenerational national cohort study. Fertil Steril, 2011, 95, 2574-2577(published by American Society for Reproductive Medicine).