Time to Stop Selling SP in Pharmacy and Medicine Shops

The use of sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP) intermittent preventive treatment of malaria in pregnancy (IPTp) has been offered in stable malaria transmission countries for over a decade.  As observations continued that SP resistance was growing in children treated for malaria, SP was dropped as a recommended treatment drug in all malaria-endemic countries in Africa.  Ironically SP is still commonly found in pharmacy and medicine shops in many countries.

While SP resistance in child treatment has been documented, studies directly testing this in pregnant women have not been designed due to the usual concerns about  the effect of medicines in pregnancy. Already the recommendation for IPTp excluded its use in the first trimester. What has been observed though not that SP does not work, but that its half-life or period of effectiveness has been reduced. Therefore WHO still recommends SP for IPTp, but more frequently.

The new guidelines call for SP as IPTp to be given at every focused antenatal care (FANC) visit after quickening. There are four FANC visits recommended and depending when a woman comes for her first FANC visit, she may be eligible for 3 or 4 monthly IPTp doses.

In order to prevent SP efficacy as used in IPTp from eroding further, there have been strong calls for stopping its use for treatment. This has proved challenging since SP may cost less that one US dollar per dose, while ACTs, if not available free in government clinics (if no stock-outs), cost up to $6-$8 for adult doses. No wonder there is an economic appear to continue to stock SP in private shops for sale as an antimalarial. Even in public clinics SP meant for IPTp may be used by staff when there are ACT stock-outs.

dscn3695-sm.jpgIt would seem that most of our national health authorities believe more in the economic laws of supply and demand than in the technical guidelines of WHO. Otherwise SP would not be so widely available in shops. Whether private sector sales of SP are ignored by health authorities or actually tolerated by them, the result is still a threat to mothers and unborn children whose lives can be saved by maintaining the efficacy of SP and banning sales and inappropriate use of SP.  Courage to stand up to private sales is needed.

On a closing note, you will have noticed the picture of the SP packet attached here. It is produced by a Kenyan company and was found in a pharmacy in Malawi. The manufacturer is clearly hoping to rebrand its product. The pharmacist admitted though that few have been sold since pregnant women get SP free at ANC.

Fortunately the shop is not promoting this SP for treatment but instead sells a brand of artemether-lumefantrine. Even this newly repackaged SP product for home use is inappropriate as IPTp should be given as directly observed treatment by a health worker. We should not let such inappropriate use of SP be hidden behind clever packaging. National Malaria Programs and Drug Authorities must join hands to restrict SP use for IPTp.

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