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MEDIRISC. Medicines, risks, and crises. Towards a history of health problems associated with the use of medicines, 1900–2023

This international and interdisciplinary conference is devoted to drug disasters and their consequences in the 20th and 21st centuries. It aims to bring together researchers from the humanities and social sciences, healthcare professionals and, more broadly, people involved in regulation, critical information and user activism. This transnational perspective, extending over a long period, aims to understand the recurrence of these accidents, which – when studied – are often confined to a single case study, appearing as an epiphenomenon.

Medicines and their risks have been extensively researched in the field of social science. Studies have focused on the processes of discovery, innovation, and evaluation. Several researchers, such as Vos (1990), Greene (2007), Gradmann and Simon (2010), Carpenter (2010), Gaudillière & Hess (2013), Gaudillière & Thoms (2015), and Gerber (2022), have contributed to this area of study. However, less attention has been given to adverse drug reactions in historical and sociological research. While there is growing research on environmental risks and damage, the negative effects of medicines remain relatively unexplored. It is surprising considering that the analysis of medicine usage can be compared to the study of environmental disasters. Previous studies have used the categories of “crisis” and “disaster” to understand slow-onset or acute environmental disasters (e.g. Fortun 2001, Boudia & Jas 2019).

However, drug accidents and disasters raise many questions, generally formulated in terms of “drug safety” and “drug regulation”: how can we explain, both historically and sociologically, the fact that drug accidents occur, sometimes on disastrous scale as in the case of Stalinon, Thalidomide, DES (distilbene), Vioxx, Mediator or, more recently, Depakine? What are the links between surveillance systems, risk control and the organization of pharmaceutical markets?

The conference will be structured around the following three themes:

– The challenges of long-term drug risk management
– Drug safety: ignorance, knowledge, interests
– Spaces, scales and geographies of drug risks

1. The challenges of long-term drug risk management
What can be said about accounts that present the harm caused to humans by drugs as disasters, the inevitable price of progress, “rare events” or, on the contrary, systemic problems or crimes of omission? Beyond the categories of accident, tragedy, scandal or even manslaughter, how can we explain the relative regularity with which medicines seem to have caused ‘iatrogenic’ disasters in the 20th and 21st centuries? Which roles do drug interactions and cumulative risks play? How are health and environmental drug risks linked to each other historically?

2. Drug safety: ignorance, knowledge, interests
What developments can we identify over the 20th and 21st centuries in terms of the safety of medicines, pharmacovigilance systems in particular, public debate on the risks associated with medicines and the behavior of medical and non-medical users of medicines? How do the articulation and management of drug-related risks follow the boundaries of multiple social inequalities, such as gender, class, race and age? How do practices of knowledge and ignorance influence the epidemiological, clinical, and political management of drug-related risks, as well as their historiography and sociology? And how are healthcare systems and drug-related risks linked?

3. Spaces, scales and geographies of drug risks
Finally, what scales and geographical areas structure the risks associated with medicines? Disasters such as thalidomide and hormone scandals have had a major transnational dimension. At the same time, national differences in regulatory systems, the media and information on events, or even their documentation, could considerably alter the attention paid to harm caused by a drug. So what are the consequences of the different shifts in scale between, on the one hand, the people experiencing the drug action and, on the other hand, the social actors responsible for monitoring drug risks?

Our international conference aims to bring together academic, institutional, and activist positions by bringing together contributions from history and related social sciences (sociology/anthropology/geography/law/political science/economics), from health sciences interested in social science perspectives on drug-related risks, and also from those involved in drug risk management: user representatives, health information professionals, and those involved in drug regulation and monitoring.

How to submit:

Please send a 500-word summary with a short biography to solene.lellinger@u-paris.fr and nkessel@unistra.fr, quoting MEDIRISC in the subject line, no later than 15 October 2023.

This conference will benefit from funding by the Institut la Personne en Médecine (ANR-18-IDEX-0001, IdEx Université Paris Cité).


Solène Lellinger
E-Mail: solene.lellinger@u-paris.fr

Nils Kessel
E-Mail: nkessel@unistra.fr