India’s patriarchal society has found a dangerous way to dodge the ban on determination of sex of fetus through ultra sound. Pregnant women use of indigenous herbal preparations which they believe helps sex selection and this is posing a public health hazard. A study supported by the Department of Science and Technology showed that such herbal preparations also called Sex Selection Drugs (SSDs), contained chemical compounds that effect reproductive capacity as well as tissue formation & weight of foetuses.

With the budgetary support by the Science for Equity, Empowerment and Development (SEED) Division, DST, under its Scheme for Young Scientists and Technologists (SYST), Phytochemical analysis was carried out on 48 SSD samples, collected from different parts of the country.  Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC) and Reverse-Phase High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (RP-HPLC) revealed the presence of plant-derived compounds with estrogenic activity, technically called isoflavonic compounds along with few unknown compounds. Three selected samples were analyzed for reproductive and developmental toxicity in roundworms (C. elegans) that disclosed significant decrease in egg laying capacity, progeny count, and egg viability compared to vehicle control group, after dose defining assay.

The two most toxic samples were also tested for reproductive and developmental toxicity in rats. The SSD samples showed lower fetal weight and lesser number of foetuses as well as skeletal and soft tissue alterations. The results clearly reveal a need to disseminate this information to community in order to apprise the gullible people about the imminent dangers of consuming these SSDs.

The increasing prevalence of the practice calls for effective communication of the associated dangers through a communication package developed under this project, including a short but hard-hitting film to create awareness among masses.

Preference for the male gender a prevalent malice in India, had for long normalized malpractices like determination of sex through ultrasound followed by abortion of the girl child and/or use of indigenous herbal preparations that claim to change the sex of the foetus from female to male. The former has been banned legally and the enforcement of the law too has become a norm now rather than an exception.

However, the practice of sex selection through intake of indigenous herbal preparations, known as Sex Selection Drugs (SSD)’ in India is an established public health concern. This belief of people about intake of these drugs leading to delivery of male child lies in deep-rooted social stigma that society is grappling with.

Pregnant women are made to consume these drugs, prepared by quacks or traditional healers, during 8-10 weeks of pregnancy, which is the time of sexual differentiation, to beget a male child.  Different studies had reported use of such drugs by 7-46% women of the country.

Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Delhi, initiated population-based case-control studies with support of National Health Mission (NHM), Haryana in 2014 and concluded that upon consumption of such SSDs, the risk of congenital malformation increases by 3 times while that of stillbirths increase by 2.5 times. Preliminary analysis showed presence of phytoestrogens and steroids in these drugs. It also suggested that these formulations have adverse effects on foetus and microbiota of the consumer. The DST supported study which was triggered by the above mentioned report confirmed such suggestions.

Effective communication of dangers of such practices would help curb the menace.