Middle East

The Arab country turning to 'female Viagra'

Flibanserin pill sold in Egypt
Image caption Flibanserin is produced in Egypt by a local pharmaceutical company

As Egypt becomes the first Arab country to authorise the production and sale of a drug meant to boost the female libido, the BBC's Sally Nabil explores whether there's a market for it in such a socially conservative country.

"I felt drowsy and dizzy, and my heart was racing."

This is how Leila felt after taking her first pill of the so-called "female Viagra" - chemically known as flibanserin.

The drug was first authorised for use in the US almost three years ago, and is now being produced in Egypt by a local pharmaceutical company.

Leila - not her real name - is a conservative housewife in her mid-30s. She prefers to conceal her identity as, like many women in Egypt, talking about sexual problems and sexual needs is still very much a taboo.

After almost 10 years of marriage, she says she decided to get the drug "out of mere curiosity".

Leila, who has no health problems, bought the drug without a prescription - a very common practice in Egypt, where people can buy many medicines over the counter.

"The pharmacist told me to take a pill every night for a few weeks. He said there would be no side effects," she says. "My husband and I wanted to see what would happen. I tried it once, and will never do it again."

Divorce rates are on the rise in Egypt, and some local media reports have attributed it to persistent sexual problems between couples.

The local manufacturer of flibanserin says three out of every 10 women in Egypt have a low sex drive. But these figures are just rough estimates - such statistics are hard to come by in the country.

"This treatment is very much needed here - it's a revolution," says Ashraf Al Maraghy, a representative of the company.

Image caption Pharmacists selling the drug in Cairo say sales have so far been promising

Mr Maraghy says the drug is safe and effective, and any dizziness and drowsiness will disappear over time - but many pharmacists and doctors disagree.

One pharmacist I spoke to warned me that the drug could lower blood pressure to "alarming levels" and might be problematic for people with heart and liver problems.

Murad Sadiq, who runs a pharmacy in northern Cairo, says he always explains the side effects to customers but that "they still insist on buying it".

"About 10 people a day come in to buy the drug. Most of them are men. Women are too shy to ask for it."

'It's all in the mind'

Inside Mr Sadiq's pharmacy, I noticed an advert that referred to flibanserin as "the pink pill". It's the female version of the "blue pill" - a term used in Egypt to refer to Viagra for men.

But the manufacturer says the term "female Viagra" is inaccurate. "The media came up with this name, not us," says Mr Maraghy.

While a Viagra pill treats erectile dysfunction by improving blood flow to the penis, flibanserin was developed as an anti-depressant and boosts sexual desire by balancing chemicals in the brain.

Image caption Flibanserin has been dubbed the "female Viagra"

"'Female Viagra' is a misleading term," says Heba Qotb, a sex therapist, who has refused to prescribe it to any of her patients.

"It will never work with a woman who suffers any physical or psychological problems," she adds.

"For women, sex is an emotional process. It all starts in the mind. A woman can never have a healthy intimate relationship with her husband if he mistreats her. No medication will help this."

Ms Qotb says flibanserin's efficacy is very small and is not worth the risk. "Lowering blood pressure is a very serious side effect," she warns.

Read more on women in Egypt:

Egyptian women still have a long way to go before they will feel comfortable speaking up about their sexual needs.

Leila says she knows a lot of women "who filed for divorce after their sexual relationship had soured as a result of the accumulative tension in their marriage".

"If your husband is sexually weak, you will support him and help him seek treatment, as long as he is a loving life partner. But if you have an abusive husband, you will definitely lose all interest in him, even if he is good in bed. Men don't seem to understand this."

Though it's still early days, Mr Sadiq the pharmacy manager says sales of flibanserin have been very promising so far and believes they will rise.

But Ms Qotb, the sex therapist, is very concerned about the potential repercussions on marriages.

"When a man notices no improvement in his wife's sex drive, even though she has been taking the pills, he will blame her and not the ineffective drug or their tense relationship. He might even find this as an excuse to dump her."

More on this story