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New gel to enhance reproductive health

Reproductive health unit at a KIsii hospital. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Reproductive health unit at a KIsii hospital. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Kenyan researchers have developed a medical gel to tackle vaginal dryness which is a major cause of reproductive health challenges among women in the country.

The new product – dubbed Smugel – is the first lubricating gel to be developed in Kenya and also in Africa.

It can also be used in hospital procedures such as vaginal and prostate examinations as well as for lubricating theatre equipment.

The product’s development is part of a broader government and private sector initiative aimed at spurring local innovations to promote universal healthcare.

“With the new gel, the aim was to provide an effective and low-cost product that can be accessible to most women in our setting who suffer from vaginal dryness,” said Dr Peter Mwethera, innovator and lead scientist behind the smugel development initiative at the Institute of Primate Research (IPR) based in Nairobi.

He noted that he got inspiration from Cuba which as a result of suffering from foreign economic sanctions for many years, decided to rely on local solutions and ended up creating an impressive universal healthcare system that is now a model to the world.

Through its centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Cuba manufactures sufficient medical products for its use and exports the surplus for revenue.

“Most of our health products come from abroad, meaning we can’t control the prices. So the only sustainable way of dealing with this challenge and making our healthcare affordable is to begin developing our own products to address ailments affecting us.”

Vaginal dryness occurs when tissues of the vagina are unhealthy or not well lubricated.

Common symptoms of the disease include mild discharge, soreness, itching or burning of the vagina.

Those with the condition also experience painful sexual intercourse that may lead to light bleeding after the act.

“This can interfere with conception and can also break marriages,” said Dr Mwethera whose specialisation is in reproductive health science.

The gel is primed to offer relief to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) victims who usually suffer from long-term vaginal dryness complications resulting from the procedure’s damage to their sex organ.
In Kenya, just as in most African settings, the practise is rampant in remote areas with very high poverty levels.

“Affected women usually suffer in silence fearing stigmatisation. And that’s why we were keen on coming up with a low-cost gel that they can use so as to enjoy reproductive health rights just as other people.”

He added: “We’re already working with the anti-FGM board on this. Currently, there’s a lot being done to prevent FGM which is good. But we should also address problems of women living with adverse effects of the practise.”

Dr Mwethera stated that the gel will also boost cancer care. Chemotherapy drugs can damage the ovaries thus making them unable to produce sufficient amounts of oestrogen hormone which helps in lubricating the vagina.

“Sometimes the dryness is so severe that people find it hard to walk.”

A dip in the hormone levels can also happen after child birth, during menopause, breastfeeding or as a result of taking certain contraceptives, anti-depressants and anti-oestrogen medicines.

According to Dr Mwethera, vaginal dryness is also a major contributor to condom bursts which enhance the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like syphilis and gonorrhoea that are reproductive health hazards.

During the development of the vaginal gel, Dr Mwethera’s team at IPR also came up with an ultrasound gel known as Smuscan that boosts maternal and child health through early detection of foetal complications.

Both products are currently being rolled out in the public health sector as well as mission hospitals.

“You can find them in some chemists but we’re still looking for investors to help scale them up in the private sector and expand the market in the broader African continent. This will also boost Kenya’s revenue.”

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