Chinese Lepers dream of thalidomide miracle
Sunday Times May 1996
by Nick Rufford, Nanjing
At a leper colony on the banks of the Yangtze river, inmates talk of a miracle cure that will take away their twisted limbs.
“I have heard of thalidomide,” said one old woman. “I think it would heal me, but I understand it is very hard to get.” The drug those 30 years ago was withdrawn in the West after being blamed for malformations in babies is making a comeback in the East. It is being used to treat a growing number of disorders, from arthritis to mouth ulcers.
“It is a very effective treatment,” said Professor Li Wenzhong at the institute of dermatology in Nanjing .
“In certain circumstances such as pregnancy it is not suitable, but used properly it is safe.”
State-run pharmaceutical factories in China began mass-producing the drug in the 1980s to help supply a national programme to fight leprosy. Doctors found that it rapidly relieved the swollen sores and raging fevers that sometimes accompanied the infection.
As the drug gained respectability, it was tested for other complaints.
“Chinese doctors like it because it has many applications,” said Dr Zhang Guo Cheng, a surgeon at the national rehabilitation centre for sexually transmitted diseases and leprosy control. “For example you can treat people, whose skin is sensitive to sunlight, and you can treat rashes and swellings; in fact, it is good for any kind of inflammation.”
Some western experts acknowledge that China has made progress by expanding the use of the drug.
“In many respects, their attitude is more sensible than ours,” said Dr Richard Bull, a dermatologist at the Royal London hospital. “We lost a very useful drug because of the way it was misused here in the early days.” But there are fears that the growing use of thalidomide is spawning a black market in the drug. Unscrupulous racketeers in China have allegedly sold the tablets as a pain reliever or a sleeping pill.
“When thalidomide gets outside a hospital environment, that is when the problems start,” said Dr John Hawk, consultant dermatologist at St Thomas 's hospital in London . “People who buy it aren't going to know that they must not get pregnant or that they may become impotent or get permanent nerve damage.”
In some remote areas of China , sufferers from incurable afflictions believe thalidomide has mystical
healing powers - among them thousands of lepers who have been left permanently handicapped or
disfigured by the disease and who have no hope of recovery.
Zhang Gui Qi, the Communist party secretary of the leper colony work unit next to the Yangtze river , said rumours of treatments gave false hope and were disruptive. “People here are old and have scars that can never be cured. When they hear of new things like this it causes trouble.”
There is also concern that in China 's far-flung provinces there may be a growing number of “hidden” thalidomide cases, whose malformations are blamed on other causes. One British epidemiologist said: “I am certain China has thalidomide victims, but they are not recognised as such or are kept out of the public view.”
China denies any such problems and says its comprehensive programme of ultra-sound testing of pregnant mothers would quickly detect foetal abnormalities.