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Why is retail sale of oxytocin banned?

What has the govt. decided?

From September 1, the Union Health Ministry will impose a highly controversial ban on the retail sale and private manufacture of oxytocin, a life-saving drug for new mothers. The reason for the ban is the misuse of oxytocin in dairy animals, like buffaloes, to increase milk production.

The government’s April ban order refers to a 2016 Himachal Pradesh High Court judgment, which said daily oxytocin injections made cattle barren and reduced their lifespans. In addition, it claimed that drinking milk from oxytocin-treated cattle led to male impotence, early puberty among women and cancers.

Does it make cattle barren?

There is little evidence that oxytocin, when used judiciously under the oversight of a veterinary doctor, harms animals. According to Prakash Nadoor, a veterinary pharmacologist at Karnataka Veterinary, Animals and Fisheries Sciences University, veterinarians use oxytocin in very few situations. One situation is to induce labour in cattle. Here, around 50-100 international units (IUs) of oxytocin is administered over the period of a day.

Another situation is when a dairy animal is unable to produce milk because her calf is either dead or has been taken away. To supplement the animal’s natural oxytocin, which stimulates milk production, an injection of up to 5 IUs is given twice a day for 2-3 days, says Mr. Nadoor. “It is not for long-term use,” he adds.

At such low levels, oxytocin is not known to harm cattle. A 1991 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science found that when Holstein cows were given 20 IU injections of oxytocin daily for a 305-day period, it did not increase prevalence of mastitis, a painful inflammation of the udder. Nor did it shorten the 21-day reproductive cycle of cows, known as the estrous cycle.

In a more recent unpublished study by the National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI), Haryana, buffaloes were given 2.5 and 5 IUs of oxytocin daily for 90 days. Here, too, there were no adverse effects on the buffalos’ estrous cycle and ability to conceive, according to Mahendra Singh, a cattle physiologist at the NDRI. However, the animals grew addicted to oxytocin and produced lesser milk when deprived of it. This is why, continuous use of the hormone is problematic.

Does milk from such cattle hurt humans?

Again, there is little evidence that oxytocin injected into cows at low doses is secreted in milk. In a 2014 study by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, researchers found that oxytocin levels were similar in milk from cows injected with up to 1 IU of the hormone and untreated cows. Plus, whatever little oxytocin was in the milk did not survive intestinal digestion. So, it is unlikely that humans would experience effects like cancer.

If oxytocin doesn’t hurt, why the ban?

Oxytocin can be overused in the absence of oversight by a veterinary doctor. At high doses, it can hurt animals. Also, when untrained dairy farmers are administering the injection, it can cause pain for the animals.

Several investigations, both by the media and by law-enforcement officials, have found indiscriminate oxytocin use in States like Punjab and Haryana. Sometimes oxytocin is used to compensate for stressful living conditions, which interferes with milk let-down. Also, because the synthetic oxytocin available in pharmacies is expensive, farmers buy crude pituitary extract of the hormone from grey markets. Such extracts contain several other hormones like gonadotropins, which could have ill-effects too.

What can go wrong if animals are continuously given high doses? In a 1958 study, when dairy heifers were giving over 100 IUs of the drug daily, the hormone interfered with the formation of the animal’s corpus luteum, an endocrine structure critical to pregnancy.

Was the ban the only solution?

No, given the drug’s importance to both human and veterinary medicine, the Drugs Technical Advisory Board recommended against a ban, advocating better surveillance instead. A ban might lead to scarcity and high drug prices.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:13:25 AM |

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