Searching for the okapi: is there a history of thalidomide in (South) Africa?

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Seminar Date
May 22, 2013
Work-in-genesis, work-in-progress, this is an attempt to sketch the background to an emerging research project the outcomes of which are as yet uncertain, but which will explore an absence, a curious incidence of something that did not happen. For, in the absence of bodies characteristic (though variously formed) of the in utero presence of the substance, it has become conventional wisdom that there are no histories to be told of thalidomide in South Africa, or in the continent more widely. This paper begins to question that view and asks, if there was indeed no ‘epidemic of thalidomide’ in the continent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, why not, for Africa was certainly projected as a market for the drug. Moreover, it can also be asked (though not answered or explored in any depth in the current paper) why it is that there are no officially reported instances of disabilities arising from the use of thalidomide in the continent for the treatment of leprosy in the 1970s and 1980s; or more recently, in treatments for some cancers and conditions associated with HIV/AIDS? The answers are not self-evident and indeed are themselves of interest not merely as counterfactual histories, but as explorations in their own right of several aspects of African history: inter alia of Cold War and Commonwealth era flows of capital and pharmaceuticals, which in turn were linked to imperial economies of underdevelopment; of the penetration of biomedicine and its institutions; of the statistical state and the monitoring of and local response to children born with birth defects; of debates about eugenics and reproductive rights; and of course, of the histories in Africa of pharmacology and public health.
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