COLOMBIA – What does informal access to misoprostol in Colombia look like? A mystery client methodology in Bogotá and the Coffee Axis

by Ann M Moore, Nakeisha Blades, Juliette Ortiz, Hannah Whitehead, Cristina Villarreal

BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health 2020;46(4) (open access)


Introduction – In 2006, abortion was decriminalised in Colombia under certain circumstances. Yet, women avail themselves of ways to terminate pregnancy outside of the formal health system. This study explored how drug sellers engage with women who attempt to purchase misoprostol from them.

Methods – A mapping exercise was undertaken to list small-chain and independent drug stores in two regions in Colombia. A sample (n=558) of drug stores was selected from this list and visited by mystery clients between November and December 2017. Mystery clients sought to obtain a medication to bring back a delayed period, and described the experience, the information obtained and the medications proffered in exit interviews.

Results – Misoprostol was offered for purchase in 15% of the visits; in half of visits, only information about misoprostol was shared, while no information about misoprostol was provided on the remaining visits. Over half of sellers who refused to sell any medication provided referrals, most commonly to an abortion provider. Among visits which included discussion of misoprostol, two out of five sellers provided dosage instructions with most recommending the minimum adequate dosage. Mystery clients received little information on the physical effects to expect with the use of misoprostol and possible complications.

Conclusions – As misoprostol is being obtained from some drug sellers without a prescription, capacitating this cadre with at least a minimum of standardised information on dosage, routes of administration and expected effects and outcomes have the potential to improve reproductive health outcomes for women who choose to terminate pregnancies this way in Colombia.

Key messages

  • Even though abortion became less restricted in Colombia in 2006, informal access to misoprostol is one way that women induce abortion.
  • Mystery clients attempting to purchase misoprostol received very little information on how to use the drug correctly or what to expect when taking it.
  • Drug sellers require greater training on misoprostol to help improve the quality of information women get; this has the potential to improve abortion safety.