CDC Warns on DES Drug Risk to Aging Mothers and Children

Aging Today, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

CDC Warns on DES Drug Risk to Aging Mothers and Children


DES, a synthetic estrogen, was given to a generation of women who had suffered miscarriages or premature deliveries; the hormone was intended to improve their chance of a safe and successful full-term pregnancy. But studies in the 1950s and later showed that DES not only is ineffective for that purpose, it also poses a threat both to those who took the drug and to the children they bore while taking it.

Key concerns today are:

* DES mothers have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

* DES daughters have a higher risk of infertility and an increased likelihood of unsuccessful pregnancies. They also have a higher risk of developing vaginal or cervical cancer.

* DES sons have a modestly increased risk of developing cysts on their testicles.

In a presentation at the 2003 Joint Conference of the National Council on the Aging and the American Society on Aging, held in Chicago, March 13-16, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerted healthcare and professionals that millions of Americans from both generations-the mothers who took DES and their children-may be ignorant of the potential dangers to their health.

DES (diethylstilbestrol) was designed to supplement the natural estrogen produced in a woman's body and was prescribed in the United States from 1938 until 1971. The drug was popular among doctors treating affluent and educated middle-class women. Even though a 1953 study indicated that DES did not prevent miscarriages or premature births, doctors continued to prescribe it. In 1971, a study linked exposure to DES before birth to clear cell adenocarcinoma (CCA), a rare vaginal cancer.

Although the number of people exposed to DES in the United States is unknown, researchers estimate five to 10 million were exposed, including the mothers and their unborn children, according to material on the CDC website. The figures are imprecise because DES was marketed under numerous brand names, many women did not know they were taking an artificial hormone, and many medical records have been discarded or lost since the time when DES was prescribed to pregnant women.

Because cases of the rare CCA cancer were later found in girls as young as 8 years old, there was a national burst of publicity in the early 1970s and an active campaign to urge DES mothers to have their young daughters regularly screened by gynecologists. Since then, "more than 30 years of research have confirmed that health risks are associated with DES exposure" according to a comprehensive report by the CDC.

BREAST CANCER RISK

Materials on the CDC website indicate that women who took the drug while pregnant "are at a modestly increased risk for breast cancer. …

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