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A Healthy Curiosity: The Pill - Side Effects, Safety And Stories From Real Women

Is the Pill all it's cracked up to be? Peta Bee reports on why the contraceptive is still a topic of debate

It was considered among the most significant medical advances of the last century and, more than half a century since its launch in 1961, the contraceptive Pill remains a means of freedom for many women. Yet its reputation is far from glowing. With repeated health scares about everything from breast cancer and blood clots to bowel disorders and depression, the Pill has come to be regarded as much a scourge to women’s health as a passport to hormonal control.

Raised Risks?

Concern has been raised about newer, so-called third generation combination pills, including Yasmin, Femodene and Marvelon, that have been developed in recent years. These contraceptives containing both oestrogen and progestogen have been linked in scientific studies, including a paper in the BMJ last year, to anything up to a six-fold increase in blood clots or deep vein thrombosis. Concerns were heightened after the death of Fallan Kurek, a 21-year-old teaching assistant from Birmingham who suffered a fatal blood clot after starting a new course of the new-wave contraceptive pill Rigevidon. Many doctors have, however, reverted to prescribing older versions of the Pill, such as Microgynon 30, widely used in the UK, which was found in trials from the Netherlands and Denmark to be one of the safest.

Reassurance

Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, academic head of community based medicine at the University of Birmingham and a spokesperson for the Royal College of GPs says that doctors are aware that the newer Pills do present a slightly higher risk of blood clotting, and anyone with a family history of blood clots should make this clear at their GP appointment. “But this must be kept in perspective as the newer pills have some other advantages over second generation pills in terms of fewer side effects,” she says. “The combined pill is an excellent contraceptive choice for the majority of women.”

Women should be made aware of the risks and ask plenty of questions, experts say. But the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says, "These are very safe, highly effective medicines for preventing unintended pregnancy and the benefits associated with their use far outweigh their risks” and that “women should continue to take their contraceptive pill”.

MORE GLOSS: The pros and cons of alternatives to the Pill

Other choices

Official statistics suggest that the Pill has a failure rate of less than 1 per cent, but it is not fool-proof. That figure doesn’t take into account human error, sickness and diarrhoea, all notoriously likely to increase the risk of getting pregnant even while taking the contraceptive. It’s the forgetfulness factor combined with the potential for health scares that has seen a rise in popularity of contraceptive implants (called Nexplanon), injections (Depo-Provera) or the intrauterine system (Mirena). Containing fewer hormones than the Pill means the dangerous side effects are less likely.

Fertility software

If none of this sounds satisfactory, then the latest high-tech contraceptive choice could come in the form of fertility software, in particular an App called Natural Cycles that costs £6.99 per month. Created by doctors, it has been the subject of an independent study at the renowned Karolinska Institute in Sweden where it was tested among 4,054 Swedish women aged 20-35. Using body temperature, the app alerts users on days of the month when having unprotected sex carries a risk of conceiving.

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