More than one in four emergency contraceptive pills sampled in Peru recently were found to be inadequate versions of the real thing or outright fabrications, according to a study published on Friday by the Public Library of Science.
“A woman who does not want to get pregnant and takes these emergency contraceptives will get pregnant,” said one of the study’s participants, Facundo Fernandez, a professor of biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
In all, the study found that seven of 25 batches of emergency contraceptive pills, purchased in Peru at 15 different pharmacies or dispenseries, had a faulty release of the active ingredient, levonorgestrel, and one batch of contraceptives had no levonorgestrel at all.
As Fernandez tells Science Daily: “We detected that the active ingredient was not there in one batch, instead those samples had a drug called sulfamethoxazole. It’s a very common antibiotic. It can cause serious adverse reactions in some patients.”
Supported with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the study was responding to reports of faulty or inadequately performing contraceptives in South and Central America. According to Fernandez, many of his students, with some practice, quickly became quite astute at spotting fabricated contraceptive pills: “They touch it a bit with their nails and they try to cut into it and they know it’s like a rock, just way too hard. The tablets are sometimes so hard that they won’t dissolve. That’s something that you pick up pretty quickly.”
The experience led him believe that it wouldn’t be an impossibility for dupe contraceptives to be spotted and turned away as early as possible in the chain of custody: “You really want to catch these fakes early, at the customs level or at the distribution center. You don’t want to wait for this to get to the pharmacy or for somebody to report it.”
According to the study’s conclusion, many of these fabrications are produced as far away as the United States and African countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Ghana and Kenya, which led the study’s authors to conclude the problem was widespread:
Overall, these results highlight the diversity of drug quality problems that have important implications for public health, and especially women’s health and society. These ranged from inadequate amount and release of levonorgestrel to the presence of a wrong active ingredient. This work also emphasizes the need for efficient oversight of pharmaceutical products, with proper monitoring of manufacturers and distribution mechanisms (with proper storage and supply chain security) in order to lower the risk of users being exposed to products of poor quality, safety, and efficacy.
[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]