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American Public Health Association




The Titanic has become a metaphor for the disastrous consequences of an unqualified belief in the safety and invincibility of new technology. Similarly, the thalidomide tragedy stands for all of the "monsters" that can be inadvertently or negligently created by modern medicine. Thalidomide, once banned, has returned to the center of controversy with the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) announcement that thalidomide will be placed on the market for the treatment of erythema nodosum leprosum, a severe dermatological complication of Hansen's disease. Although this indication is very restricted, thalidomide will be available for off-label uses once it is on the market. New laws regarding abortion and a new technology, ultrasound, make reasonable the approval of thalidomide for patients who suffer from serious conditions it can alleviate. In addition, the FDA and the manufacturer have proposed the most stringent postmarketing monitoring ever used for a prescription drug, including counseling, contraception, and ultrasonography in the event of pregnancy. The Titanic/thalidomide lesson for the FDA and public health is that rules and guidelines alone are not sufficient to guarantee safety. Continuous vigilance will be required to ensure that all reasonable postmarketing monitoring steps are actually taken to avoid predictable and preventable teratogenic disasters.



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