Popular folk sex selection remedies are risky, lead to stillbirths and birth defects: Study

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Research says that most of these remedies contain high levels of dangerous chemicals that increase the chances of still births and birth defects

It's a known fact that many Indian women, who are desperate to have sons, turn to traditional healers and mid-wives for folk remedies that might helps them deliver a son.

But research now says that most of these remedies contain high levels of dangerous chemicals that increase the chances of still births and birth defects. Some of the chemicals might even mimic the effect of human hormones, says the study.

A study, published in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, found that sex-selection remedies were responsible for around 20% of all stillbirths in the northern Indian state of Haryana alone, where these folk remedies are quite popular.

What research says

The study observed 325 cases of stillbirth and an equal number of healthy-birth controls, and concluded that women who had a second of third pregnancy were more likely to take sex-selection drugs, especially if the first borns were girls.

Usually, these remedies are given after a woman conceives when the sex of the child is already set. It's a known fact that there are still many parts of India that have a strong cultural bias against girls and parents want to have a son who can take care of the family and inherit the property.

In another study, scientists analysed 30 different sex-selection remedies and found that more than half had high levels of phytoestrogens, compounds from plants that resemble the female hormone oestrogen.

Sutapa Bandyopadhyay Neogi, a physician and specialist in maternal and child health with the Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private initiative, who was lead author of the study said that some of the medicines also contained mercury and ground peacock feathers.

Phytoestrogens in large doses are linked to cancer, birth defects and developmental disorders in mammals and “could be potentially detrimental to the growth and development of an embryo,” according to the study, published in 2015 in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth.

The drugs typically are given to women during the first trimester of pregnancy. “Any insult during this period (including intake of phytoestrogens) can result in congenital malformations,” the study said.

Another study, published in 2015 in the journal Drug Safety, found a strong association between women who took sex-selection drugs and two types of congenital malformations in newborns, including neural birth defects and structural abnormalities where a limb was absent.

Some women are told to follow elaborate instructions when taking the drugs, Dr. Neogi said. Among these: “Wake up in the morning, pray to God, drink milk from a cow that has recently birthed a male calf, don’t look at the faces of any of the women in the house, think of begetting a male child and take the pill.”

Anything for a son

While prenatal sex determination is illegal since 1994, many families still go for scans to know the sex of the foetus. Those who can’t afford scans turn to unlicensed medical practitioners for drugs meant to ensure women give birth to sons.

Networks of middlemen— which include rickshaw pullers, drivers and midwives—connect families to faith healers who dispense the drugs, say authorities.

Authorities want midwives to report on people who dispense such remedies. But, Darshana Kumari, 46, a veteran midwife in Bahadurgarh, Haryana says: “It becomes difficult for us to maintain cordial relations in the village once we start to complain about a faith healer or a doctor.”

This story first appeared here.

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[Image & News courtesy: Wall Street Journal]