Morning after blues - Pharmacies allowing schoolgirls to stock up on emergency contraceptives
Scores of Jamaica teenage girls are using the emergency contraceptive tablets (morning-after pills) as their preferred choice of birth control, and several pharmacists who are aware of this problem are keeping quiet because the operators of the pharmacies are enjoying the profit from the sales.
A Sunday Gleaner probe has found that some pharmacies in the Corporate Area and St Catherine are selling the morning-after pill to teenagers, some not yet 16, without their parents' consent and without counselling about possible side effects.
The morning-after pill prevents pregnancy by stopping or delaying fertilisation of the eggs in the ovary through the addition of hormones.
They are best taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, and it is not recommended that they are taken more than once per month.
There are reports, however, that some teenagers are taking the tablets as often as once per week, and that some pharmacists are scolded by their employers when they decline to sell the drug to children not accompanied by a parent.
Last week, our news team tested the system and all the pharmacists interviewed said customers must be counselled before being sold the morning-after pill. They also claimed that teenagers could only purchase the pill if they were in the company of their parents.
Questioned at one pharmacy
But last Thursday, a 16-year-old Gleaner intern visited several Corporate Area pharmacies and was questioned in only one, and that was where the pharmacists declined to sell her the emergency contraceptive.
"I'm sorry but I can't give you the pills if you have taken it less than two months ago. It may cause complications with your menstrual cycle and with future pregnancies," the pharmacist told the intern.
In other locations, the baby-face youngster was quickly told the price of the tablets and eventually bought a pack from a pharmacist who did not ask her a single question.
That is against the rules but several pharmacists who spoke to our news team said this is becoming the norm.
"Except for women with their husbands or committed partners, nobody is buying the regular contraceptive pills anymore. Most people are using only the morning-after pills," said one female pharmacist who freelances at drugstores in Kingston and St Catherine.
"I see the teenagers very often; at least one of them every day. A lot of them don't even want to talk to you," said the pharmacist, who asked not to be named.
"Many persons don't know that once your body gets used to it, after a while it doesn't work. A lot of persons come in to say they take it and they still got pregnant," continued the woman. "But they don't understand that it's simply not working anymore."
Owners turn a blind eye
Some pharmacy owners, especially those who are not pharmacists, turn a blind eye to the health implications, stockpiling the tablets, and selling them to whomever, including teenage girls. This puts the pharmacists in a peculiar situation.
"You, the pharmacist, don't want to sell it to a 16-year-old because you can go to jail, but at the same time you have the owners who get upset about that because they are losing sales," charged the pharmacist, as she pointed to the heavy demand for the pills which were being sold in downtown Kingston for between $1,200 and $1,500 last week.
"If an older friend or boyfriend comes in with the girl, the boss will ask why you didn't sell it to the friend or the boyfriend. But that friend doesn't know the girl's menstrual cycle. They don't know if they reach ovulation. They don't know certain things about the girl's sex life," she protested.
"Just like anywhere else, that is definitely true," said a male pharmacist in downtown Kingston, where the morning-after pills are said to be sold to anyone, and without question.
"Sometimes they will come in their uniform and you have to make a judgement call. We don't sell it to them in their uniforms, but when they are out of uniforms it becomes a tricky situation," he said, noting that the youngsters do not need identification to purchase the drug.
Dr Charles Rockhead, obstetrician and gynaecologist, has warned that the morning-after pills are for women who have irregular sex or who may have experienced accidents during intercourse.
He said it is not intended as a replacement for the normal daily contraceptive pills, which are more effective contraceptives when taken as directed.
"The most common complications of the emergency contraceptives are nausea, dizziness, vomiting, fatigue, headache and tenderness. It can cause low abdominal pains, and it can cause bleeding between the periods or heavy bleeding," said Rockhead.
He pointed out that unless a woman takes a significant amount of tablets at one time, there are no long-term complications from the morning-after pills.