DES Carries On


WORDS Carol Devine

DES, or diethylstiboestrol, is firing up as a hot topic on campus. A number of students this year have undertaken research into the health impact in Australia of the ongoing harmful effects of the drug.
Touted a ‘wonder drug’ in its time, DES was enthusiastically marketed from 1940 to 1971. Despite its contraindication, DES was even on occasion prescribed to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage. Further research has shown an increased risk of certain cancers and reproductive problems, not only in those women prescribed DES during pregnancy, but also their children from that pregnancy.

DES-exposed people require vital special health care and so concern lies for the many people who remain unaware of their exposure and the harm caused by the drug. It is estimated up to 740,000 Australians have been exposed to this harmful drug. The possibility of effects on subsequent generations, the ‘DES grandchildren’, is being researched in USA.

In her health studies project, Jenna Richardson has set the ball rolling with a questionnaire design for respondents to DES information posters in retail pharmacies. Learning about DES was an illuminating experience for Jenna, as well as for her peers, when she presented for group discussions. “Whenever I explained the health impact of DES and the circumstances for those affected in Australia, the shocked reactions of fellow students, friends and family said it all,” says Jenna. “It was clearly important to bring DES out of the dark and create a means for Australians to learn and talk about DES – all for valid health reasons.”

For Sibel Hazer, her health studies project takes on a different angle, reviewing literature about DES exposure and the Australian health system that determines health priorities. Her real challenge is identifying avenues where the DES exposure issue will likely secure a place on the health radar of health professionals and organisations. “The marginalisation of this issue is intriguing, especially where rightful cancer preventive health care is involved,” says Sibel. “This is where I particularly empathise with those affected and become charged up to investigate further.”
DES granddaughter and third-year student, Alice, in certain respects is fortunate to know about her mother’s DES exposure in the womb. By this, she can inform treating doctors of her status as a DES granddaughter. Having seen the impact of DES on her family, Alice is inclined to favour natural health remedies whenever possible and she keeps her ear to the ground for any research developments that may affect her health care. “I honestly do wonder about the plight for the off-spring of DES-exposed people, especially where many are oblivious to DES exposure. It’s an important part of their family health history,” says Alice. “So, my message to the campus is this: Let’s talk about DES.”


  • DES mothers, women given DES during pregnancy, are at increased risk of breast cancer.
  • DES daughters are at increased risk of clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina/cervix, reproductive tract abnormalities, miscarriage, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, infertility, premature birth and breast cancer over age 40.
  • DES sons are at increased risk of abnormally small testes, undescended testes and non-cancerous epididymal cysts.

For more information type DES in the Cancer Council NSW web site.

What might make you suspect you may be a DES grandchild?

If your grandmother recalls having previous miscarriages or being prescribed medications while pregnant. DES was most commonly prescribed to prevent miscarriage and for pregnancy complications such as bleeding. It was also known as “stilboestrol”.

If your mother’s health history show a series of reproductive problems such as cancer, difficulty in getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term or near term, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, miscarriages or premature deliveries.
If your father’s health history shows urogenital problems, such as, undescended testes.
For more information you can go to Des Actions website.