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Whistleblower claims vindication as France probes babies born with missing limbs

Emmanuelle Amar, hailed by ecologists, has been accused of scare-mongering as Paris investigates at least 25 unexplained cases

Illustrative image of a baby holding hands (boonchai wedmakawand; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a baby holding hands (boonchai wedmakawand; iStock by Getty Images)

A French scientist who raised the alarm into incidents of babies being born with either missing or malformed arms said a recently declared nationwide probe into the issue is a vindication of her work.

The scientist, Emmanuelle Amar, has been hailed as a whistleblower by ecologists and campaigners, but has been attacked for scare-mongering by others, including fellow scientists.

Following her revelations, the independent Remera health register where she worked had its funding cut and workers lost their jobs, but those have since been restored, she told the Guardian newspaper in an interview published Sunday.

“As soon as they announced they’d be paying for our register after all, we knew our work had been validated,” Amar told the Guardian. “It’s a sign they have recognized the quality and pertinence of our work.”

The Remera public health body was created after the thalidomide scandal and is responsible for tracking birth defects.

In the 1950s and ’60s, thousands of babies around the world were born with missing or stunted limbs linked to the use of the drug thalidomide, which was used to treat nausea in pregnant women. It was banned in the ’60s.

French scientist Emmanuelle Amar who raised the alarm about several babies born in France with missing or deformed limbs (Screencapture/ YouTube)

Last month France launched a  nationwide probe into incidents of babies being born with either missing or malformed arms after abnormal rates of birth defects in several regions sparked a public health scare.

Francois Bourdillon, head of the Public Health France agency, confirmed for the first time that a national investigation was “underway” and the results would be known in about three months. “Nothing is being hidden from you,” he said.

Confidence in the state’s handling of the issue took a blow when health authorities reported an additional 11 cases in the Ain area near the Swiss border between 2000 and 2014 that had not previously been made public.

“At the time we raised the alarm we were dragged through the mud, told by the health authorities our concerns were unfounded,” Amar said. “The only people to support us were the scientists and the media.

“The officials, bureaucrats, just wanted to protect themselves. They tried to kill off the register and suffocate the story. It’s incomprehensible but it’s evidence of a kind of arrogance in our institutions,” she said.

A relatively small number of cases have been detected so far in total — about 25 over the past 15 years in the regions of Brittany, Loire-Atlantique and Ain — but the defects have caused public alarm and have been widely reported by the French media.

Officials had already called the number of cases in Brittany and the Loire-Atlantique areas, on France’s west coast, statistically “excessive,” and Health Minister Agnes Buzyn vowed to investigate further.

“We don’t want to exclude anything,” Buzyn told the BFM television channel recently. “It’s maybe something environmental, it’s maybe what they (pregnant mothers) ate, it’s perhaps what they breathed in.”

But for mothers like Isabelle Taymans-Grassin, herself a doctor, there is a sense of suspicion over the way authorities handled the information.

“It was a shock, a sense of living in a nightmare,” she told AFP, recalling the birth of her daughter Charlotte in 2012 with a deformed left arm.

A few months later, she said she began to discover other families in the same situation in Guidel, Morbihan in northwest France. But they were not convinced of the sincerity of health officials.

“We had the impression they wanted to stifle this affair. All the families had that feeling,” she said.

So far, no explanation has been found for the deformations despite tests on the mothers to see if they were exposed to common substances.

Some environmentalists have claimed pesticides or other chemicals could be to blame — the cases are clustered in rural areas — but there is no evidence at this point to back up the claims.

The defects could also be genetic.

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