KAYOLE, Kenya—For women in Kenya who choose to take an unlicensed Chinese contraceptive pill, there may be some serious side effects they don’t know about.
Ann Mwende, a resident of Kayole, an informal settlement in the outskirts of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, takes a contraceptive pill branded “Sofia” that was introduced to her by a friend. She admits that she doesn’t know the actual ingredients in it.
“I have heard of the side effects, but I have not experienced any in the two months that I have taken it,” Mwende told The Epoch Times.
“I know of a friend who experienced very heavy bleeding after three months of using the pill, but I will not stop since the other methods are expensive for someone like me who depends on casual jobs for a living,” the 24-year-old mother of two said.
According to Business Daily, laboratory tests found the pill to contain widely varying hormone levels, with some having 100 times the recommended dose of a form of estrogen, and others having no hormone content at all and offering no contraceptive effect. This could explain some cases of women becoming pregnant while on the pill.
The pill is taken once a month. Commonly reported side effects include “nausea, tender breasts, palpitations, ‘heavy’ legs, tiredness, and a feeling of false pregnancy,” according to Business Daily.
Because of the high levels of estrogen, breastfeeding children under the age of 3 have been reported with enlarged breasts and an overdeveloped uterus, the Health Ministry said. Some children had swollen feet, knock-knees, painful muscles, and stunted speech development.
Children whose mothers were on the pill when they conceived are born with defects such as enlarged breasts or even pubic hair, Dennis Odero, the head of the crime investigation and enforcement unit at the Kenya Pharmacy and Poisons Board, told The Epoch Times.
Kenya banned the Chinese pill 10 years ago, but it’s been secretly returning to the market since then, according to a report by Kenyan newspaper Business Daily. The contraceptive pills are sold in Kenya and many other African countries under the guise of herbal medicine, and many women are choosing them since they are cheap and accessible. But the content of the pills is unregulated and potentially harmful.
When banning the pill from the Kenyan market in 2009, the Ministry of Health’s director for medical services at the time said it contained very high levels of the synthetic hormones levonorgestrel and quinestrol, and the dose in each tablet is “about 40 times” what is supposed to be given.
Ten years ago, Kenya’s Health Ministry raised the alarm over the existence of the “herbal” contraceptive drug, whose harmful effects were seen in women and the children of mothers who were taking the pill while breastfeeding.
“Since the Chinese have their own herbs and foods back in their country, sometimes they are allowed to come in with them without regulation, and some unscrupulous businessmen take advantage to sneak in these pills in the name of being herbal,” Odero said. They “then sell them to the locals who have no knowledge at all what they are getting into.”
In Zambia, health officials have warned citizens of the pill’s side effects.
While acknowledging the presence of the pill in the capital Lusaka, Ludovic Mwape, the public relations officer at the Zambia Medicines Regulatory Authority, said the contraceptives are common but haven’t been approved for use in Zambia.
“The fact that the language on the package is in Chinese confirms that the pill has not been approved,” Mwape told the Global Press Journal in 2016. “One of the prerequisites for registering and approving medicine is that the name and instructions must be in English.”
Getting the pill within these cities and other parts of Africa where it has been declared illegal has to be via someone the seller trusts.
In Nairobi, for example, a woman can walk into an “herbal clinic,” or call a number, or order online if she cites a customer that the seller already knows. With no other checks, she can start receiving once-a-month pills for as little as 200 Kenyan shillings ($2) per pill.
A report by the Inter Press Service news agency in 2010 said customers had to take the pill at the clinic and weren’t allowed to take them off the premises. This method of distribution makes it hard for officials to make arrests and curb the spread of the drug. Odero said it wouldn’t make sense to prosecute someone who is caught with one pill, but instead, the agency is focusing on the source and how the pills are being smuggled into the country.
“I wouldn’t like to see my child suffer and become deformed as a result of my using of this pill,” said Mwende. “The government should then regulate the importation of such drugs, but give us an alternative through a pill that we can take once a month and is cheap. That way, we will stop using Sofia.”