Government Oxytocin Supply Would Have Caused Shortages for Pregnant Women
But then again, regulating the drug was always about protecting cows, not women.
Earlier this month, we reported that the government had put its proposed oxytocin ban on hold, but had not provided reasons for the delay. The ban, which was supposed to go into effect on July 1, was aimed at preventing oxytocin’s illegal use in the dairy industry. (The drug artificially induces lactation in cows and other dairy producing-animals.) An import ban is already in place, and the new ban would restrict national production and sale of the hormonal drug to a single government undertaking, Karnataka Antibiotics and Pharmaceuticals Limited.
Today, The Wire has reported that KAPL had not begun to produce oxytocin in time for the ban, and in fact, as directed by the government, only started producing the hormonal drug on 2 July. As The Wire points out, this kind of poor planning, had the ban gone into effect, would have caused national shortages of oxytocin.
A potential shortage is particularly worrisome because, despite its misuse in the cattle industry, oxytocin is primarily used to assist women during childbirth. The hormone is produced naturally by the human body, and induces contractions during labor (and even, in small quantities, during menstruation, sex, and breastfeeding). The artificial hormonal drug is administered to induce labor in women who have passed their due dates, and crucially, it is life-saving for women who experience postpartum hemorrhaging, a leading cause of maternal mortality in India.
The government has chosen to place a blanket ban on oxytocin, only allowing its production through a narrow government sector pipeline. As we pointed out earlier this month, it has, essentially, chosen to place the lives of cattle over the lives of women. The delay around KAPL’s production of oxytocin only appears to confirm these priorities.
“What the government has done is like demonetisation – they suddenly decided to remove oxytocin from the market without making any arrangements,” Dr. K.V. Babu, the Kerala doctor who first discovered KAPL’s delay in oxytocin production, told The Wire. “What was the hurry to bring about a ban like this? This shows that the government is giving more importance to cattle and taking maternal issues lightly.”
Various health practitioners sent a letter to the government recently, urging them to reconsider the ban due to the potential loss of life that would stem from a shortage. “Given that women deliver in multiple settings and health facilities in different parts of the country, restricting the production and sale of oxytocin, we fear, will immediately impact the availability of oxytocin,” the letter said. “The order restricts production of oxytocin to a single public sector manufacturer and its ability to meet the demand from across the country is in serious doubt.”
Dr. Mukesh Kumar, a representative for KAPL, told The Wire they had the capacity to manufacture enough oxytocin to supply the country. “We have the capacity to manufacture 35 lakh ampoules of oxytocin a month, on a single shift,” he said. “Domestic demand as per our estimate is for 25 lakh ampoules a month. We can also do a double shift if needed.”
He said KAPL had actually been working on gearing up for the ban for some time. “We have been silently working on this for the last two years – since 2016. Even PMO and NITI Aayog are taking care,” said Dr. Kumar. “It was needed. I think all Indians should support this cause.”
“This cause” has been accused of being one and the same as the “cow-lobby,” and indeed, the somewhat blasé attitude displayed by the government and KAPL indicates a disregard for the fate of the women who would otherwise have depended on oxytocin during childbirth. With existing regulations going unenforced, it is unclear how a government pipeline would prevent the misuse of the drug at micro levels, which is where the brunt of misuse currently occurs, other than by creating shortages.
Dr. Kumar also mentioned “alternative” drugs to oxytocin for women during childbirth. But oxytocin is inarguably the most effective drug in stopping hemorrhaging. “Alternatives to oxytocin, [for] example, misprostol, are proven scientifically to be inferior in effectiveness in prevention and treatment of post-partum haemorrhaging,” the letter from the health practitioners said.
The so-called “cow-lobby” may not be the only thing to benefit from a potential ban: Earlier this year, LiveMint reported that oxytocin is also misused in the trafficking industry, to speed up puberty in trafficked children. But the government has not mentioned this as a reason behind either the domestic ban or the import ban. And in any case, wouldn’t the better way to prevent oxytocin’s misuse in the trafficking industry be to instead allocate resources toward targeting the trafficking pipeline?
On countless occasions, the Centre has revealed a startling disregard for human life, and especially women’s lives, in favor of religious or political agendas. But they have until August 31 before the oxytocin ban is slated to go into effect; authorities should use the time to find alternatives to a — frankly speaking — lazy, stopgap measure.
Urvija Banerji is the Features Editor at The Swaddle, and has previously written for Rolling Stone India and Atlas Obscura. When she's not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, painting, cooking, picking fights online, and consuming large amounts of coffee (often concurrently).