In 1980, Betty Mekdeci, head of the Association of Birth Defect Children in Orland, Florida, launched a most widely-publicized lawsuit against Merrell Dow over Bendectin. Her son was born with chest deformities, a shortened right arm and two fingers joined on his left hand, attributed to her use of the drug. A federal court in Orlando awarded $20,000 to the Mekdeci family who had sued for $10 million.
In July of this, a U.S. federal court ordered Merrell Dow to pay $20 million in compensation and $75 million in punitive damages, to Sekou Ealy, 8, after finding that his deformed arms were linked to his mother’s use of Bendectin during pregnancy.
“This is incredibly good news,” said Cate Sutherland, a Belleville-area woman whose child died at birth of severe heart defects. Mrs. Sutherland blames Bendectin (which she took during pregnancy) for her daughter’s death. “The incredibly large amount of punitive damages (awarded) shows the court is putting the blame on Merrell Dow” Cate affirms.
Mrs. Sutherland has been instrumental in bringing families from across Ontario together for a class-action suit against the drug maker. Since the fall of 1986, she has heard from 100 mothers who used Bendectin and whose children suffered birth defects.
At least 700 out-of-court settlements have been made by Merrell Dow, in the U.S. But Merrell Dow is no stranger to controversy. The company was associated with Thalidomide, an anti-morning sickness drug now proved to have caused many birth defects. Thalidomide was distributed in Canada under the brand name Kevadon, which was taken off the Canadian market in 1962.
In the early 1960s, Merrell Dow pharmaceuticals of Cincinnati developed Bendectin and successfully marketed it in the U.S., Canada, and across the world. An anti-nausea drug for pregnant women, it was freely prescribed by doctors and also sold over-the-counter for many years. An estimated 30 million women worldwide have taken the drug.
The anti-nausea drug contained doxylamine, a type of antihistamine, and pyridoxine, or vitamin B-6. (A third ingredient, dicyclomine hydrochloride, was dropped in 1979).
In 1983, Merrell Dow withdrew Bendectin voluntarily from the market, and a year later set up a $120 million fund for out-of-court settlements. Why? Because it is believed that Bendectin is responsible for causing birth defects in many children whose mothers have taken the drug, and the money would be needed to cover legal costs.
Dr. Stuart Newman, professor of anatomy at New York Medical College, is one developmental biologist who believes that Bendectin is linked to birth defects. “I am aware of studies that show that if Bendectin is present during the growth of cells that form limbs in experimental animals, it generally retards and inhibits the growth of the limb,” states Dr. Newman. While noting that the studies were in animals, not humans, professor Newman adds, “the drug is harmful to the cells for the development of limbs and that can lead to limb reduction.”
Interestingly, Dr. Newman says, the same antihistamine drug as that in Bendectin – minus the B-6 – is available over-the-counter in U.S. pharmacies today. It is called Unisom, and is sold as a sleep aid. It comes with a warning it is not to be used by pregnant women!
One Toronto pharmacist confirmed that a drug almost identical to Bendectin is still being sold in Canada. Diclectin, made by Laboratoire Duchesnay Inc., in Laval, Quebec, is available by prescription for relief of morning sickness. According to Duchesnay, president Pierre Boivin, Diclectin is taken by 8,000 – 10,000 pregnant women a year (about 375,000 babies are born in Canada annually). To date, this company has never been sued.