Diethylstilbestrol: the Wonder Drug?

Seen as a medical miracle to help women with pregnancy issues and a dependable source of steady income for pharmaceutical companies, diethylstilbestrol was given to millions of women around the world. It was meant to be a wonder drug for expecting moms but its devastating impacts are now hitting their daughters and sons, decades later. Diethylstilboestrol was considered safe and effective for both mothers and their developing babies until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised physicians in 1971 to discontinue prescribing diethylstilboestrol in pregnant women because of its link to a rare vaginal cancer.

In Australia, the drug was prescribed from the early 1940’s to the 1970’s for the same reasons as in the other countries. It was also prescribed during the adoption process in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was administered to prevent lactation in unmarried mothers forced to give their babies at birth under Australia’s adoption policies and laws.

Other therapeutic use of diethylstilbestrol was post menopause syndrome.

The first problems with diethylstilbestrol began to surface in 1971, when the adult daughters of DES mothers began developing adenocarcinoma of the vagina, a condition only rarely seen before then. Following a 1971 published report citing health concerns for mothers and children, the FDA advised physicians to discontinue prescribing diethylstilbestrol in pregnant women because of its link to this rare vaginal cancer. In some European countries such as France, the drug continued to be prescribed until 1977 under the name Distilbène®.

The use of diethylstilbestrol was never banned and continued to be prescribed in some countries through the 1990s when the only approved indications for DES were treatment of advanced prostate cancer and treatment of advanced breast cancer in postmenopausal women. The last remaining U.S. manufacturer of diethylstilbestrol stopped making and marketing DES in 1997.