Women are increasingly resorting to prescription drugs to terminate pregnancies, causing them untold suffering.
One of the common abortion drugs (name withheld for public safety) was originally meant to treat ulcers and is supposed to be sold only with a prescription.
But that is not what is happening. Buyers can stroll casually into most chemists in Nairobi and other major towns and obtain the drug without any questions.
The price ranges between Sh1,000 and Sh4,000, depending on the location of the chemist – one we walked into in Nyamakima, Nairobi, sells two pairs of the drug for Sh1,500.
When a Nation reporter, pretending to be pregnant, requested to buy the medicine, the attendant asked how far along the pregnancy was. When told it was at four months, he offered an alternative to the ulcer drug, saying the latter is only effective for pregnancies under 11 weeks. The alternative (name withheld again for public safety), he said, was stronger and more efficient “than even a surgical procedure”.
He said he would insert one piece of the drug in the birth canal to open the cervix, then other medicines to take orally at home. He asked for Sh5,500 for this drug.
10 weeks pregnancy
Our next stop was a chemist on the city’s busy Tom Mboya Street. We ordered for the ulcer drug and said the pregnancy was 10 weeks. The shy pharmacist told us the dose of four tablets would cost Sh4,000 and Sh500 for antibiotics.
But how would we administer the tablets? She advised the “pregnant woman” to place two tablets under the tongue and insert the other two in the birth canal at night before going to bed. She said cramps would start after a few hours, though not severe.
When we said we didn’t have enough cash on us and asked to come back around 4pm, she objected to the timing, saying her boss would be around then. So she told us to return with the money the following day.
We asked her if we needed to buy anything else and she advised us to get enough pads as there would be some “heavy bleeding”.
The ulcer medicine works by softening and dilating the cervix in a medical procedure called ripening. It also causes the uterus to contract, expelling the foetus.
Bleed to death
Considering this is a self-administered process, there is a high risk that the pregnant woman could bleed to death. Also, because pharmacists sell the drugs without a prescription, a buyer who is anaemic may end up dying from the procedure.
Consuming four tablets of the ulcer tabs also amounts to an overdose. One tablet contains 200mg of the active ingredient, said Pauline Waithera, a nurse at The Aga Khan Hospital.
To induce labour, doctors use as little as 25mg. Therefore, consuming 800mg (four tablets) as advised is risky and may result in complications, or even death.
Following a tip, we visited a clinic opposite Jamia Mall where we were told that a specific doctor offers surgical procedures to get rid of pregnancies. However, we were informed that he moved to a different facility in Ngara.
We asked for his contacts and placed a call to him. He directed us to his clinic and told us he would charge Sh500 for consultation. When we insisted that he states his rates for the procedure so that we could go prepared, he said he charges between Sh3,500 and Sh10,000.
This shows how cheap and easy it is to get unsafe abortions in the streets of Nairobi. A recent nationwide study by the African Population and Health Research Centre reveals that more than 500,000 abortions are conducted annually in Kenya. Many of these are unsafe. The 2018 Incidence and Complications of Unsafe Abortions in Kenya study shows that about 158,000 women go for post-abortion care annually following complications.
Yesterday, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board told the Nation that the drugs being abused are for treating ulcers and excessive bleeding after childbirth. It added that chemists selling the drugs over the counter are breaking the law and going against the pharmaceutical code of conduct.
But since the board appears to be more of a barking dog, the rogue chemists could be serving their next clients right now.