Bodega ‘Pharmacies’ a Risky Business, Experts Warn

For Mariela Suarez, a 36-year-old Mexican woman, the bodega near her home is her pharmacy.

Last week Suarez went to a store on 110th Street in Harlem’s El Barrio neighborhood for an injection of the birth control medication she has been using for several months.

For $23, Suarez bought Perlutal, a medicine made in Mexico which is not approved for sale in the United States.  For $5, Luisa (not her real name), a Mexican woman who runs the store, injected her with an ampule’s worth of the drug in the back of the store where fruit and other merchandise is stored.

The bodega, a store of less than 350 square feet which carries products ranging from flowers to fruits and vegetables, also sells and injects other medicines without prescription. These include Pentrexyl, an injectible antibiotic, for $24, or in pill form for $1.75 each.

Luisa sounds like an expert pharmacist.

“This is good for everything,” she explained in a friendly way when she is asked about a medicine for a sore throat.  “It cures infections of the ear, the stomach and the throat,” she adds.

The medicines are not on public display.  But the sale of un-prescribed medicines is an open secret.  Clients arrive, explain their symptoms in Spanish, and the sales clerk responds by listing the medicines the store carries to cure them.

Some of the medicines, spread out on a counter in front of the buyer, have no seal of guarantee, nor any expiration date; others are about to expire.

“It’s very cheap, and it’s good,” Suarez said of Perlutal.  “I haven’t got the money to go to a doctor, much less to buy expensive contraceptives in a pharmacy. I’ve got to use what I can get.”

Marilyn Aguirre-Molina, a professor at Lehman College and a specialist in health issues affecting Latinos, explained that the sale of illegal medications is neither a new phenomenon nor confined to the community of El Barrio, but rather a common practice in the city’s immigrant neighborhoods.

“The Latino community is experiencing a health crisis,” said Marilyn Aguirre-Molina. “The purchase of medications without a prescription has become a necessity for immigrants who have no insurance.”

Besides the risks of taking medicines without medical supervision, the use of medications for purposes other than those intended is also becoming more and more common, warned Aguirre-Molina.

Out of control

On a second visit to the store in El Barrio, Aguirre-Molina’s warning was apt.

Perlutal, according to Hispanic women of the area, is very well known among young women and transsexuals, not only for its ability to prevent conception, but also as a hormonal stimulant which enlarges breasts and hips.

Tatiana (not her real name), a Peruvian woman of 21 who grew up and still lives in El Barrio, confirmed that the medicine is popular among her friends.

“I don’t use it,” she said.  “But women I know well do use it to make their breasts grow bigger.  Although I don’t know if it really works.”

Aguirre-Molina, the CUNY professor, said that hormonal contraceptives can lead to weight gain in some patients, but not in specific areas like buttocks and breasts. She also warned that hormonal contraceptives are not recommended for adolescents, since they can have a damaging effect on their development.

Gloria Sanchez-Contreras, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, said that Perlutal is not approved for sale and distribution in the United States.  The spokeswoman also warned of the health risks of consuming medications of unknown origin and doubtful purity.  She pointed out that imported medicines can lack the information which would allow for a patient’s rapid treatment in case of side-effects.

The New York State Attorney General’s Office would not comment on whether investigations into the sale of illegal medicines in the city are underway.

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