Women risk lives with DIY abortions
Johannesburg - Queen* sat outside a buy-and-braai shop in Windmill Park, Boksburg, in a faded red hoodie, fighting back tears.
Four months ago, the 17-year-old lost her child.
She does not know what caused her 2-month-old baby’s death.
“I wasn’t even coping in school,” she recalled.
This is not the first time Queen has lost a child, she said.
When she detected her first pregnancy early in the first trimester two years ago, she drank Stametta, a liquid formula readily available at drugstores across the country.
Several weeks later, she felt relief in her still-flat stomach.
To most users, Stametta is known as a powerful and pungent liquid laxative. Its manufacturer, Bodicare, markets the formula as a “body healing liquid” and a “superior health formula”.
But Queen grew up hearing rumours that Stametta could “bend the sperm”, and a Google search shows she’s not alone.
“Can stametta really kill the pregnancy,” reads the subject of one Wiki board.
A comment on another site reads: “I thnk im preg bt i dnt wnt da baby yet..cn stametta kil da bby” (I think I’m pregnant but I don’t want the baby yet… can Stametta kill the baby?).”
And when UCT surveyed a group of 600 women attempting abortions in their second trimester, nearly 10 percent had first used Stametta, making it the most widely used backdoor abortion method for women in the second trimester.
Sister Brenda Mavundla-Bamazo, regional manager at Marie Stopes abortion clinic, said many women used Stametta to avoid the social stigma around abortion, preferring to terminate their children in privacy.
Many use her clinic as a last resort.
But whenever Mavundla-Bamazo sees a patient who admits to having taken Stametta, she sends the woman to hospital immediately.
“(When women) have already taken Stametta, they tend to bleed uncontrollably during the abortion procedure,” Mavundla-Bamazo said, noting that Stametta’s cramping effect could induce early labour or even puncture the uterus, a condition that can lead to internal haemorrhage or sepsis.
Stametta’s manufacturers, Bodicare, did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the past month.
Stametta’s bottle comes with a small, smudged label warning pregnant women not to drink it.
The free sample bottle that comes attached recommends a dose three times larger than that of the first bottle, and lists entirely different ingredients.
Except for the identical package design, the sample bottle reads like a different product.
Dr Neil Gower, a homeopathics expert, wrote that the medicine’s ingredients lists, which referred to “Aloe” and “Vitamin complex”, were too vaguely worded to know what their effects might be.
Experts could not locate an ingredient known to induce abortion on either bottle.
But the liquid’s chemical make-up is so complicated it would require a small fortune and merit a “PhD in itself” to analyse, according to Wits chemistry professor Katryna Cukrowska.
Stametta is one of 155 000 “complementary medicines” recognised by The Medicines Control Council. Unlike ordinary drugs, which must undergo a battery of tests before they are sold to the public, these drugs require no safety or quality assessments before they are allowed to line the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies.
In November, the council issued an amendment to its 1965 medicinal guidelines with a “long-awaited plan” to evaluate complementary medicines in phases.
By February 14, every complementary medicine that had not been evaluated was required to display the following disclaimer: “This medicine has not been evaluated by The Medicines Control Council. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Stametta is one of many medicines that have not yet updated packaging to comply with these regulations.
“Technically, (Stametta) is an illegal product,” said Dr Roy Jobson, associate professor of pharmacology at Rhodes University.
Gower said: “Most importantly, should anyone be aware of any negative outcomes of the administration of this product it should be reported to The Medicines Control Council Inspectorate immediately… for evaluation, investigation and possible measure of redress… Including withdrawal from the market, legal or registration procedures.”
Apart from telling her schoolteacher, this is the first time Queen opened up about her Stametta use.
She said she had heard girls at her school whisper about the product’s potentially deadly side effects; but she believed none of them would speak outside of their own circles, due to the stigma of abortion.
When asked why she took the product despite knowing about the side effects, she shrugged.
“I was willing to take that risk,” she said.
She feared a baby would defer her dreams. Eventually she wants to become an optometrist and marry Lucky*, her boyfriend of five years.
In 2002, the council issued a notice meant to “call up” information from complementary medicine companies. Though “well-intentioned”, the notice asked for administrative data only, it did not ask for any information concerning ingredients or curative claims.
The audit was supposed to have expired after six months, on August 22 of that year.
Instead, for the next 11 years, medicine companies sent their data to the council according to the audit’s terms, in lieu of a quality check on the medicines themselves.
On October 29, 2010, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi wrote a letter to Parliament, stating that none of the 155 000 complementary medicines on the market had been checked for quality, safety or efficacy.
The previous year, Jobson, who has served as a member on the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa and the Professional Board for Homoeopathy, Naturopathy and Phytotherapy, penned an open letter expressing concern about The Medicine’s Control Council’s lack of oversight of complementary medicine.
With no independent assessment or substantiation, he wrote, there was no way to tell if the medicines simply didn’t work, contained banned substances, or were contaminated by bacteria, among other possible impurities.
He never received an official response.
“This is a scandal I have been trying to expose for years,” wrote Jobson in an e-mail.
*Not their real names