A study published on October 06th, 2011 in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine tallies the risks of diethylstilbestrol related disorders among women whose mothers took the synthetic hormone during pregnancy, compared to others who weren’t exposed.
Among these health risks, the study suggests that women exposed to diethylstilbestrol, commonly called DES daughters, are 82% more likely to develop breast cancer after age 40.
Overwhelmed by the extensive media coverage that the publication of this study sparked in the USA, Canada, Australia and France but upset by the total absence of information in the UK, I contacted a health journalist at the UK Press Association to request for this information to be made available to the general public and widely shared and circulated in the UK press.
Given that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and 2011 marks the 40th Anniversary of the DES cancer link, I am hoping that my emails to the Press Association won’t go unnoticed and will grab the attention of UK journalists.
Findings of the DES Study
As part of this new study, researchers at the National Cancer Institute analyzed data from three separate studies that have followed more than 4,000 DES-exposed women since the 1970s. Compared with a control group of unexposed women, DES daughters were found to have higher rates of infertility (33% versus 16%), miscarriage (50% versus 39%), preterm delivery (53% versus 18%), and ectopic pregnancy (15% versus 3%). The DES-exposed women were also 82% more likely to develop breast cancer after age 40, and more than twice as likely to experience menopause before age 45. For most of the health conditions included in the study, the increase in risk was even greater for DES daughters who had been exposed to especially high doses of the drug.
“Our study carefully documents elevated risk for DES-exposed daughters for a host of medical problems — many of them also quite common in the general population,” said study author Robert N. Hoover, M.D., director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program in NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. “Without the sentinel finding of a very rare cancer in young women, and without the sustained follow-up of those who were exposed, we would not know the full extent of harm caused by DES exposure in the womb.”
Many of the potential health complications identified in the new study have been raised in previous research, in some cases with conflicting results. A 2010 study of DES daughters conducted in the Netherlands, for instance, found no link between exposure and breast-cancer risk. However a 2006 study had already suggested a higher risk of breast cancer in DES daughters. This year (2011), fifty-three DES daughters who developed breast cancer have brought a lawsuit against several DES manufacturers; the lawsuit is currently under way in Boston, USA.
What the study doesn’t mention is the health risks for DES sons. Despite the fact that women who have been prescribed diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy gave birth to as many sons as daughters, DES sons have once again been left out from a research study. Why researchers fail to include all those who have been affected, men and women? To me, we will never truly understand the extent of the DES tragedy if we don’t take a comprehensive and global approach to the problem. So even though, I welcome this study the need for more research remains obvious.
Situation in the UK
According to the support group DES Action UK who unfortunately is no longer active, more than 300,000 people in the UK (5 to 10 millions worldwide) have been exposed to diethylstilboestrol. So why countries like the UK fail to inform the general public about such an important study?
DES was prescribed to pregnant women in the UK between around 1950 and 1975, mainly to prevent miscarriage. This was despite the fact that research published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1953 revealed that women receiving DES suffered a higher rate of miscarriage. The synthetic estrogen was developed in England in 1938. It wasn’t patented and went on to be produced by more than 200 companies. In the UK, DES was known as Stilboestrol® and was sold under many brand names.
Yet, the DES tragedy remains largely unknown in the UK. Some British doctors have never heard of DES and there is only one dedicated clinic in Europe, based in Ireland. Many women are unaware that their infertility or cancer is a result of their mother having taken the drug. All of these women are not receiving proper medical treatment, or making truly informed decisions about their healthcare, as a result.
As a DES daughter myself I have reason to be interested in this new report in the New England Journal of Medicine that takes a thorough look at the heightened medical risks associated with prenatal DES exposure. And I am sure I am not the only one in the UK who feels the same. Despite overwhelming evidence of numerous health risks associated with DES exposure nobody seems to care in the UK. Media interest in the DES issues would definitely help to reach out to all those affected but unaware that their health problems may be related to Stilboestrol®.
The lack of UK media coverage on this new important study just shows how thick the wall of silence around the DES issues in the UK is. To share my experience and knowledge of this drug, I started this personal blog earlier this year for DES mothers, daughters and sons, and others interested in the DES issue. But this is a drop in the ocean. I need support from the media to reach out to people who may have been exposed. I sincerely hope the UK will show an interest in this study and will take on this opportunity to break the wall of silence.