WASHINGTON -- A rare germ that killed four California women who took the abortion pill RU-486 has been implicated in the deaths of even more women following childbirth or miscarriage, broadening the debate beyond abortion on the eve of a meeting to examine the bacterial mystery.
While the abortion link has grabbed the most attention, Clostridium sordellii has killed at least 11 other women, women's health specialists said in interviews. That is more than twice as many as have died of infection after taking the abortion pill, also called Mifeprex or mifepristone.
The numbers suggest the bacterium's threat, while still limited, could be broader than previously thought. ''That's a critical question: Is this association between use of Mifeprex and infection with C. sordellii . . . or is it something more general?" asked Susan Wood, the former top women's health official at the Food and Drug Administration. She thinks it is the latter.
Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the FDA are meeting today in Atlanta to decide what research is needed to better understand the emerging threat posed by C. sordellii and a second bacterium, Clostridium difficile. The second germ is not linked to the abortion pill but is growing in prevalence in hospitals and nursing homes, and is increasingly resistant to antibiotics. C. sordellii has been linked to four abortion-pill deaths; a fifth is being investigated.
Opponents of the abortion pill have seized on those deaths, along with hundreds of other complications after pill-induced abortions, to call for pulling Mifeprex from the market. At a congressional hearing set for next week, Monty Patterson of California, whose 18-year-old daughter died in 2003 after taking the abortion pill, is expected to renew his call for a ban.
A Senate bill proposes suspending sales of RU-486 while the Government Accountability Office reviews how the FDA approved the pill.
The drug's manufacturer, Danco Laboratories, has repeatedly said the pill is safe.
In studies and letters published in The New England Journal of Medicine in December and April, researchers detail eight other women who died of C. sordellii infection after giving birth, vaginally or by Caesarean section. Also counted are two additional deaths following miscarriages and a final death linked to infection during the woman's menstrual period.
Nearly 600,000 women in the United States have used Mifeprex since its approval in 2000, according to Danco Laboratories.