April 28, 2011

More Women Using ‘Morning-After’ Pill

A new study finds that more U.S. women seem to be using the "morning-after" pill now that the emergency contraceptive is available over-the-counter.

Researchers found that about twice as many women ages 15 to 44 said they had used emergency contraception, compared with four to six years earlier.

The emergency contraceptive Plan B has been available in the U.S. since 1999.  The pills cut the risk of pregnancy after unprotected sex by stopping the ovaries from releasing an egg.

However, the contraceptive must be taken within 72 hours of having sex.  After the first 12 hours the risk of pregnancy increases by 50 percent.

The U.S. approved Plan B in 2006 for "behind-the-counter" sales to adults, which means they could get it from a pharmacy without waiting for a prescription.  The age restriction was later lowered to 17 in 2009.

Researchers looked at data in the new study from a periodic government survey to see how national rates of emergency-contraception use may be changing.

The team found that nearly 10 percent of the over 6,300 sexually active U.S. women surveyed between 2006 and 2008 said they had ever used emergency contraception.

According to the findings, that compared with a rate of about 4 percent among women surveyed in 2002.

"It has more than doubled since the last time the data were collected," said Megan L. Kavanaugh, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute in New York who worked on the study.

However, she said in an interview with Reuters, "its use still seems relatively low, given that it's easy to access. So there's room for improvement."

The team believes that media attention is likely the reason for the increase in emergency-contraception use in 2006 through 2008.

The study found no change over time in the percentage of women who said their doctors had discussed emergency contraception with them.

According to Kavanaugh, that lack of change is not especially surprising since smaller studies have suggested that health providers are not often bringing the topic up.

Kavanaugh suggested that women who want to learn more about emergency contraception ask their doctors.

Emergency contraception is not intended as an alternative to routine birth-control options, like the Pill.

Experts said that it should be used as a backup when routine birth-control fails.  Emergency contraception is also used in cases of rape.

Kavanaugh said the hope had been that emergency contraception would lower the national rate of unintended pregnancy. 

"But so far there's no evidence that this is happening," she said.

She told Reuters that women should know that emergency birth control is an option.

"I think it's important that the public be aware that, number one, emergency contraception exists, and that it's available over the counter," Kavanaugh said.

The study was funded by the government and private grants.

The study is published in the journal Fertility and Sterility.


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