Catherine Lalonde is FCI’s senior program officer for Francophone Africa.
Each year in Burkina Faso, more than 2,000 women die from pregnancy-related complications. Many of these deaths are due to severe and uncontrolled bleeding (postpartum hemorrhage, or PPH) that occurs following childbirth. The vast majority of these deaths can be effectively prevented or treated if women have access to high-quality maternal health care. Essential medicines, such as oxytocin and misoprostol, are safe and effective for preventing and treating PPH; however for many women in Burkina Faso, and in countries around the world, these essential medicines are not available or easily accessible. Access to misoprostol, a safe and effective medicine for preventing and treating PPH, is particularly important in developing countries, and especially in rural areas, because (unlike oxytocin) it requires neither refrigeration nor injection: it can be used even in poorly-equipped health facilities and home births.
In early September, FCI convened a meeting in Burkina Faso with 40 high-level officials from the Ministry of Health, local and international NGOs, and national professional societies to share the latest evidence and research and identify strategies for making misoprostol more affordable and accessible for preventing and treating PPH. A room full of champions for improved maternal health in Burkina Faso, the participants called for widespread availability of misoprostol, particularly in regions where women may not be able to reach health facilities for delivery. At the same time, participants identified a number of challenges for making misoprostol more widely available; these included:
- High cost of the drug: As it is now, women in Burkina Faso cannot purchase a single dose of misoprostol; only larger packages — 4 or 5 doses, depending on whether it will be used for prevention or treatment — are available, and they cost more than US$5, a considerable sum in Burkina Faso.
- Use for other indications: Some meeting participants were also concerned about the possibility that, if it were made available for PPH, untrained or unskilled health workers could use misoprostol for abortion or to induce labor.
- Conflicts with health facility deliveries: Participants raised the fear that making misoprostol available in community settings could discourage women from going to a health facility for delivery.
- Need for more research/data: Meeting participants discussed whether more research in regions like the Sahel — remote, rural areas, where skilled care is unavailable or very far away and home birth is consequently very common — is needed.
Women in my district die from postpartum hemorrhage, so we can’t be against the use of misoprostol [for PPH] in rural areas. In the Sahel only 38% of births are attended by a skilled professional, and it’s not because women don’t want to deliver in a clinic. Here, travelling 2 kilometers takes as long as it would to travel 30 kilometers somewhere else.– Chief Medical Officer, Gorom-Gorom District, Sahel Region, Burkina Faso
Participants identified a number of agreements and strategies for moving forward. They agreed that:
- The potential use of misoprostol for other indications, including abortion, is not a reason to restrict access to it for PPH. A safe and effective medicine should not be withheld from women who need it simply because it can also be used for other, more controversial indications. Further, evidence suggests that making misoprostol more widely available for PPH does not increase the rate of abortion. Women who want to have an abortion will have one, whether or not they have access to misoprostol.
- Misoprostol should be added to the national Essential Medicines List (EML) for use in peripheral health centers. A small group was established to work on a proposal for including misoprostol for PPH in the national EML.
- There is a need to lower the cost of the drug, either through government funding or social marketing.
FCI works at the global level and in select countries such as Burkina Faso and Kenya, in collaboration with our partners, to support wider understanding, acceptance, and use of misoprostol for PPH. FCI maps advocacy efforts, publishes case studies, articles, and information briefs, disseminates new information, and brings together experts through online events and conferences to discuss evidence and challenges related to misoprostol’s access and availability.