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Women's Health

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Abortion Pill Deaths: Mystery Deepens

Women Who Took RU-486 Had Same Rare Bacterial Infection

Risks Unknown

The abortion pill was approved for use in the U.S. in 2000 for the termination of early pregnancy, defined as seven weeks' duration or less.

According to Danco Laboratories, more than 460,000 doses of the medication have been distributed in the U.S. since that time.

If the four deaths are the only ones that have occurred after using the drug, it would suggest that less than one in 100,000 women who have used it to induce abortions have died from infection. That is about 10 times higher than the risk associated with surgical abortions performed early in pregnancy, Harvard Medical School obstetrics and gynecology professor Michael F. Greene, MD, tells WebMD.

But it is not clear if the actual risk is higher or lower than this, he says, because there are so many questions that have yet to be answered.

"It is not clear to me or anybody else at this point if there is any real biological or medical link between this method of pregnancy termination and the risk of infection," he says.

Clustered Cases

The biggest mystery, the experts agree, is why all four cases occurred in a single state. An FDA investigation found no evidence of drug contamination, and it appears that Mifeprex is used with the same frequency and in the same way in California as in other parts of the country, Fischer says.

It is possible that increased media attention in the state has played a role. After his 18-year-old daughter's death in September 2003, Livermore, Calif., resident Monty Patterson mounted a widely publicized campaign against the abortion pill.

Within days of taking the prescribed dosage of the drug, Holly Patterson experienced bleeding and cramps that were so severe she could hardly walk, according to news accounts. Her boyfriend took her to a hospital emergency department where she was given painkillers and sent home.

Three days later she was rushed back to the hospital, where she died of toxic shock approximately 10 hours later.

If the California cluster is the result of better doctor awareness and reporting, this suggests that the true incidence of Mifeprex-related infections is not known, Fischer says.

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