FACT OR MYTH? TRUTHS, HALF-TRUTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE BIRTH CONTROL PILL

When introduced in the 1960s, the birth control pill became a symbol of female liberation

The contraceptive pill made its appearance more than 50 years ago. Emerging during a period of social and political upheaval, it  gave women the possibility to choose how and when to have a family, and to enjoy their sexual life. Thus, it is regarded as one of the greatest scientific inventions of the 20th century and one of the utmost symbols of female liberation.

From the very beginning though, this revolutionary method of contraception has been a source of controversy: some people thought it would create “a society with unbridled sexuality likely to undermine the foundations of the family”; others feared harmful effects and the birth abnormal children.

Fifty years later, the pill remains even more controversial than before and -paradoxically enough- more and more women are “liberating” from their “liberator”: the pill’s popularity is on the decline, a trend observed in many countries. The reasons behind this shift are many, but fear of side effects seems to the most recurrent. Arguably the web and social media, with the spread of countless personal stories with dramatic headlines and numerous pill scares have influenced women’s perception on the pill’s risks. But are these fears legitimate? How dangerous is the contraceptive pill? What is true and what is false?

Let’s see what science answers to the pill’s most common assumptions…

1) The pill harms your future fertility

FALSE. All scientific evidence agrees that hormonal contraceptives do not make women sterile in the long run. Sometimes it may take three to six cycles for fertility to fully return, but within a year after going off the pill, women trying to conceive are as likely to get pregnant (80%) as those who were never on the pill. In certain cases of long-term use, there may be even increased likelihood of pregnancy within 6-12 months after discontinuing it.

Moreover, hormonal birth control may preserve fertility by offering protection against pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis, ectopic pregnancy, ovarian cysts, ovarian and uterine cancer (see below).

2) The pill reduces sexual desire

MOSTLY FALSE. In most cases, birth control pills don’t affect libido (sexual desire): out of 10 women taking the pill, 7  experience no change in their sex drive, 2 observe increased libido, and 1 will feel less desire.

Recently, a study provided evidence that the pill does not kill desirecontextual factors, such as the relationship with the partner, stress, fatigue, family problems, recent childbirth, have a more considerable impact on sexual drive than the type of contraception used.

3) The pill makes you fat

MOSTLY FALSE. A recent extensive review study showed no evidence that birth control pills cause weight gain in most women. Although some persons may gain some weight when they start taking it, it’s often a temporary side effect due to fluid retention, not extra fat. And, like most side effects, it usually goes away within 2 to 3 months.

A woman’s weight may fluctuate naturally due to changes in age or life circumstances. Because changes in weight are common, many times they will wrongly attribute their weight gain or loss to the use of the pill.

4) The pill increases the risk of blood clots

TRUE. From the 1960s it is known that combined contraceptives pills may increase the risk of venous thrombosis, that is, a blood clot obstructing a vein, a serious and potentially life-threatening complication. Combined contraceptives contain synthetic versions of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. It is the estrogen that is mostly associated with the formation of blood clots, but the latest years it became evident that the type of progesterone also influences the risk. Indeed, the most “modern” formulations of the combined pill – the so-called third and fourth generation – containing the synthetic progesterones gestodene, desogestrel and drospirenone are associated with higher risk of thrombosis.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) provides the following values ​​for the incidence (frequency) of deep vein thrombosis in 100,000 women of childbearing age:

  • 5 to 10 in non-pregnant women who do not use oral contraceptives,
  • 20 for women using a second generation combination pill (containing levonorgestrel),
  • 40 among women taking third and fourth generation pill.

Factors that may increase the risk of thrombosis are smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, age over 35 years, and a family or personal history of vascular accidents.

Although these figures may look scary, they should be analyzed in perspective:

  • In absence of risk factors, the absolute risk of thrombosis is very low.
  • The mortality rate of clotting events is about 1%. Thus, the odds of dying as a result of having a clot attributable to the use of the pill would be about 2 to 4 per million women.
  • The risk remains considerably lower than that related to pregnancy and birth (estimated  1 in 1000- 2000 deliveries).
  • Indicative of this is the 1995 pill scare in the UK, when a warning was issued on the increased risk of thrombosis related to third generation pills. This led many women coming off the pill, resulting in 12,400 additional births and a 9% abortions rise in 1996.

Overall, the odds of having a thrombotic episode related to the pill are very low, in particular with combined pills containing low dose of estrogen (30 or less micrograms) and old-generation progesterone (such as levonorgestrel).

The minipill, also known as the progestin-only birth control pill, is a form of oral contraception that does not contain estrogen, and its progestin dose is lower than that in the combined formulation. Although its efficacy is slightly reduced as compared to the combined pill, the minipill does not increase the risk of venous thromboembolism or arterial thrombotic accidents (see below).

5) The pill increases the risk of heart attack and stroke

TRUE. An extensive review study looking at arterial vascular accidents attributed to the pill (myocardial infarction and ischemic stroke) showed that the overall risk of arterial thrombosis was 60% increased in women using oral contraceptive pills compared to non-users. Unlike venous thrombosis, the risk did not vary according to the type of synthetic progesterone. However, it was twice as high in women taking pills with higher doses of estrogen (the older formulations of contraceptive pills).

Therefore, the combined pill containing levonorgestrel and low dose estrogen (no more than 30 µg) is the safest oral form of hormonal contraception. The minipill may also be considered in high risk women (see above).

6) A woman should not take the pill if she smokes

TRUE.  There is some evidence that smoking may decrease the effectiveness of hormonal birth control. When taking the pill, smokers experience more frequently irregular bleeding than non-smokers; this could signal that the efficacy of the pill is lowered, but more research needs to be conducted to better understand the effect of smoking on the pill’s action.

But what we do know for sure is that smokers who take combined oral contraceptives have increased risk of venous thrombosis and heart disease (see above). This risk is higher for women that smoke more than 15 cigarettes/day, are older than 35 years old or take formulations with high estrogen levels.

If you are under 35 years old and smoke, you should be extremely careful about using the pill, and the decision to take it should be individualized considering other risk factors such as personal and familiar history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease. Smokers aged 35 or over should not take the combined contraceptive pill.

If you smoke you may opt for the mini pill, which does not seem to increase the risk of venous thromboembolism or arterial thrombotic accidents; otherwise you should discuss with your doctor about another contraceptive method, such as the intra-uterine device (IUD).

7) The pill causes mood changes and depression

DEBATABLE. Most studies have shown no effect of the pill on depression and mood changes; some studies have even found a protective effect. In 2016, an extensive review on hormonal contraception and mood changes confirmed the existing evidence, and concluded that “… negative mood changes are infrequent and combined hormonal contraception may be prescribed with confidence”.

However, a recent publication came to challenge this assertion. Danish researchers went through the health records of more than a million women using hormonal contraception. They found that those on the combined pill were 23% more likely to be prescribed an antidepressant than those not on hormonal contraception. For those on the minipill (and on other progesterone-only methods, including the hormonal IUD), the figure rose to 34%. It increased even further, to 80% more likely, for girls 15 to 19 years old on the combined pill.

There are a few important points to consider about these results:

  • Depression is a complex condition whose cause is still poorly understood. Several factors seem to play a role: genetic, environmental, psychological and social. Therefore, it is very difficult to evaluate the link between depression and hormonal contraception.
  • The Danish study does not prove that hormones are responsible for the depression – “association” does not necessarily translate into “causation”.
  • The risk of being diagnosed with depression peaks at two to three months of contraceptive use, but then begins to fall.
  •  Even if these findings are confirmed, the number of affected women remains small: 2.2 out of 100 women who use hormonal birth control develop depression, compared to 1.7 out of 100 non-users.

In conclusion, the pill may have impact on some women’s emotions, but further research is needed to establish whether hormonal contraceptives are indeed the cause of depression and mood changes.

8) The pill is 100% reliable

FALSE. Theoretically, with perfect use, the pill is 99.7% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy. However, there are many factors that may interfere with the pill’s level of effectiveness: forgetting to take it, not taking it as directed, certain medications or medical problems…Therefore, when it comes to real life, the pill is about 92% effective: about 8 in 100 women using the combined pill will get pregnant in a year.

In any case, the birth control pill remains one of the most reliable contraceptive methods.

9) If you take the pill you don’t need the condom

FALSE. A survey conducted in France showed that “…one in ten young women 15 to 20 years old is not aware that the pill does not protect against HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI)”. As stated before, the pill is a very good at preventing unwanted pregnancy but it offers no STI protection at all. In fact, the only contraceptive method that protects against sexually transmitted infections is the condom. Read more here.

10) The pill causes cancer

TRUE AND FALSE. The pill seems to increase the risk of certain cancers, but it protects again others. Overall, with the use of oral contraceptives the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer is reduced, whereas the risk of breast and cervical cancer appears to be increased.

The protective effect on ovarian and endometrial cancer (the lining of the uterus) has been consistently demonstrated in many studies. This effect increases with the length of time oral contraceptives are used and continues for many years after a woman stops using the pill.

Long-term use of oral contraceptives is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer. This correlation is not completely understood, as virtually all cervical cancers are caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). It has been suggested that women who use the pill may be less likely to use condoms, therefore increasing their risk of being exposed to HPV.

An extensive analysis of more than 70 studies suggested an increased risk of breast cancer among current and recent users of hormonal contraception. The risk was highest for women who started using oral contraceptives as teenagers. However, by 10 years after cessation of use, their risk was similar to that in women who had never used it.

Since most studies so far have evaluated birth control pill older formulations with higher doses of hormones, until recently it was assumed that the newer-generation pills available now would be safer regarding breast cancer risk. Yet a new study from Denmark found that even with the current pills, hormonal contraception users experienced a 20% increase in the risk of breast cancer compared to non-users; the odds rose among women who used hormones for more than 10 years. The risk was similar in magnitude to that of older pill types.

Whether oral contraceptive use increases the risk of liver cancer is not clear: while some studies found more cases of hepatocellular carcinoma ( a type of liver cancer) in women who took the pill for more than 5 years, others did not confirm this correlation.

Hormonal contraception seems to have a protective effect on colo-rectal (bowel) cancer, but this has not been yet consistently proven.

Since the pill seems to reduce the frequency of certain cancers and increase the risk of others, an interesting question arises: Does the pill increase the overall risk of cancer? The answer is NO. A recently published study provided epidemiological data on more than 40,000 women followed for more than 40 years. The results showed that users of oral contraceptives are protected from colo-rectal, endometrial, and ovarian cancer; this beneficial effect lasts for many years after stopping the pill. An increased breast and cervical cancer risk was seen in current and recent users, which appears to be lost within approximately 5 years of stopping oral contraception, with no evidence of either cancer recurring at increased risk in ever users with time. These results are reassuring and provide strong evidence that most women do not expose themselves to long-term cancer harm if they choose to use oral contraception; indeed, many are likely to be protected.

11) The pill has many bothersome side effects

TRUE AND FALSE. Some women refuse to take the pill because they fear certain annoying symptoms. Indeed, the birth control pill is a medication, and as such, it has possible side effects.

The most common adverse reactions associated with use of combined contraceptives include changes in bleeding patterns, nausea, breast tenderness, headaches, missed periods, vaginal discharge and visual changes with contact lenses; few women may also experience changes in sexual desire and mood changes, or temporary weight gain related to fluid retention (see above). In general, these side effects are not a sign of illness, and usually stop within the first few months of using the pill.

While some women may experience bothersome symptoms, the pill provides important non-contraceptive health benefits:

  • Decreased risk of certain cancers (see above)
  • Improved bone mineral density (in older women)
  • Protection against pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Prevention of ovarian cysts
  • Reduction of menstrual bleeding problems
  • Prevention of menstrual migraines (with non-stop formulations)
  • Protection against iron-deficiency anemia
  • Reduction of ovulation pain
  • Treatment of acne
  • Treatment of bleeding from fibroids
  • Treatment of dysmenorrhea (painful periods)
  • Treatment of excess hair on face or body
  • Treatment of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Reduction of endometriosis symptoms
  • Reduction of polycystic ovarian syndrome symptoms
  • Induction of amenorrhea for lifestyle considerations (when you need to stop your period for a while; you can also advance or delay your period with the pill)

So, how dangerous is the pill?

There is no perfect contraception method. I wish there were. And it is true that hormonal contraception, like any other medication, may have annoying side effects and serious health risks. Does it mean that no one should take the pill? Of course not!

We should keep in mind that severe risks are very rare and most bothersome symptoms are short-lived; in addition, the pill offers many non-contraceptive health benefits. But when discussing about the pill’s pros and cons, sometimes we forget a very important issue: the birth control pill is one of the most effective contraceptive methods. And effective birth control prevents from unwanted pregnancy, which may have not only devastating psychological consequences, but may also lead to severe physical harm.

Therefore, the potential problems of the birth control pill should be analyzed in perspective: we shouldn’t just pay attention to downsides, forgetting to place them in context with the upsides. Every woman considering taking the pill should thoroughly discuss with her healthcare provider not only the possible risks, but also its significant benefits, which for many women will be greater than the harms.

 

Photo credits

Heading: vintag.es; 1: thebump.com; 2: breakingmuscle.com; 3: thejewel.com; 4: health.harvard.edu; 5: newhealthadvisor.com; 6: pinterest.com; 7: pinterest.com; 8: pinterest.com; 9: blog.path.org; 10: purelyb.com; 11: buzzfeed.com; Conclusion: bigthink.com

THE HPV VACCINE: WHY IS IT CONTROVERSIAL?

The HPV vaccine has been around for almost 10 years and more than 175 millions doses have been distributed in 63 countries, with several studies confirming its safety and efficacy. In spite of that, the vaccine still remains a subject of controversy. Although recommended by most scientific societies worldwide, some recent reports questioning its safety fuelled even more the debate, dividing both general public and medical community.

Embed from Getty Images

 

In this article we will analyse the existing evidence regarding the HPV vaccine, with particular focus on its efficacy and safety. In order to organise the available information, the article will be divided into the following sections:

  1. Getting to know HPV
  2. Why a vaccine? The burden of HPV-related diseases
  3. The three available HPV vaccines
  4. Vaccination schedule and timing 
  5. Efficacy of the HPV vaccine
  6. Safety of the HPV vaccine
  7. Recent safety concerns: the chronicle of events
  8. Other debatable issues
  9. Unanswered questions…
  10. Conclusion

1. Getting to know HPV

HPV vaccine cure cancer awarenessHPV (human papillomavirus) is a virus and is transmitted from person to person through skin-to-skin contact.

  • HPV infection is extremely common, and most of the times it will be cleared by the immune system.
  • Of the over 100 types of HPV, about 12 subtypes of the HPV (mostly subtypes 6 and 11) may cause genital warts (also known as condylomas). These so-called “low-risk types” can also cause a rare condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, in which warts grow in the throat.
  • Approximately 15 types of HPV (most commonly types 16 and 18) are related to cancer. While cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer, this virus can also cause other cancers: vulvar, vaginal, anal and oropharyngeal (mouth and throat),  as well as penile cancer in men.

You can read more detailed information on HPV here.

 

2. Why a vaccine? The burden of HPV-related diseases

HPV vaccine every 2 minutes a woman diesThese figures will give you and idea of the magnitude of the problems caused by HPV:

-Worldwide, over 500,000 new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed annually. Cervical cancer ranks as the 4th cause of female cancer in the world and is the 2nd most common female cancer in women aged 15 to 44 years (1).

In the United States, an estimated 26,000 new cancers are attributable to HPV each year, about 17,000 in women and 9,000 in men (2) .

In Europe, about 58,000 new cases of HPV-related cancers are estimated to occur every year (3).

-Regarding  precancerous lesions, the estimated annual burden of high-grade precancerous lesions ranges between 280,000 and 550,000 new cases per year in Europe (4).

-In addition to cancers and precancerous lesions, the problem of genital warts should also be taken into consideration. Genital warts are very common: 1 out of 10 persons will have condylomas at some point in their lives (the frequency varies according to different countries between 0,3 and 12 %) (5). About 800,000 new annual genital warts cases are estimated to occur in women and men in Europe (4). Although not life-threatening, the costs derived from their treatment and their psychological burden should not be neglected.

 

3. The three available HPV vaccines

HPV vaccine collageFrom 2006, 2 vaccines have been available: One bivalent (Cervarix®), directed against HPV types 16 and 18, responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers  and other HPV-associated cancers; the other quadrivalent (Gardasil® of Silgard® in different countries) containing 4 HPV types:16 and 18, together with HPV 6 and 11 which are responsible for more than 90% of genital warts.

In December 2014, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a nine-valent vaccine, Gardasil 9® (6), which, besides the 4 strains contained in Gardasil (i.e., 6,11,16,18), includes types 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58, responsible for an additional 20% of HPV-related cancers (4). Gardasil 9 has also been recently approved for commercialisation in Europe (7).

 

4. Vaccination schedule and timing 

HPV vaccine who should get it ACIPinfographic

  • Vaccines are given as a 3-dose series, Gardasil at 0, 2 and 6 months, Cervarix at 0, 1 and 6 months (8).
  • In the States, The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and  the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that girls be routinely vaccinated at age 11 or 12 years.
  • Since 2010 boys have been included in the vaccination schedule in the USA, with the same schedule as girls.
  • If not vaccinated when they were younger, girls/young women and boys/young men should be vaccinated through age 26 (9).
  • Vaccine may be given starting at age 9 years (9, 10).
  • A reduced, 2-dose schedule is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for those aged 9-13 years; this schedule is not recommended by the ACIP but it has been adopted by many countries.HPV vaccine Protect your children
  • Earlier vaccination (before age 14) results in higher immune response. Another argument in favor of early vaccination is the fact that vaccines are more effective before the onset of sexual activity (8).
  • Vaccination is recommended regardless of sexual activity or known HPV infection. Although vaccines seem to be less effective in sexually active people, some benefit is expected to be attained since exposure to all types of HPV included in the vaccines is very unlikely. Testing for HPV is NOT recommended before vaccination.
  • The vaccines are prophylactic, that is, they do not prevent progression of existing infection to disease or treat existing disease. (2)
  • The HPV vaccine is covered by most private health insurance and government insurance programs worldwide. Vaccinations schedules may vary in different countries.
  • There seems to be additional protection by the vaccine in women through age 45, as showed by certain studies (11). However, there is no recommendation for vaccination in individuals aged 26 to 45.
  • The same schedule applies for Gardasil 9 (0, 2 and 6 months). Revaccination with the nine-valent vaccine is not recommended in persons who previously completed the three-dose series with the bivalent or or quadrivalent HPV vaccine (8).

5. Efficacy of the HPV vaccine

HPV Vaccine Charlene-Choi1The ultimate goal of the HPV vaccine is to reduce the incidence of HPV-related cancers. For obvious ethical reasons, the endpoint set to evaluate the HPV vaccine efficacy in different studies was precancerous lesions, namely CIN 2 and 3 (high risk lesions of the cervix, with potential to evolve to cancer). Other efficacy endpoints evaluated were incidence of HPV infection and incidence of condylomas.

Studies conducted before licensure showed that both vaccines achieved a high level of protection: 98-100% for the HPV types included in the vaccine in a naive population (that is, women who did not have HPV 16 or 18 at the time of  vaccination),  although the protection against precancerous lesions was 30-40% in the total vaccinated cohort (which included women who did not finish their immunization plan, or that were already infected with the virus before vaccination) (12, 13, 14, 15). There was also cross-protection for other types of HPV (i.e., HPV 45 and 31), which was more intense with Cervarix (16).

HPV vaccine AustraliaThe impact of vaccination on the general population has also been analysed in some studies. Australia was the first country to introduce an organised HPV vaccination program, achieving one of the world’s highest vaccination compliance rates.  Since 2007, when the National HPV vaccination program started with the quadrivalent vaccine, HPV infections from the types included in the vaccine decreased from 29% to 7% (17); a 93% reduction in the diagnosis of genital warts was also observed (18). Moreover, other recent studies showed an almost 50% reduction of  high-grade cervical precancerous lesions in women who had received all required doses of the vaccine (19).

Denmark also counts with an organised vaccination program. Six years after licensure of the quadrivalent HPV vaccine, a reduction of cervical precancerous lesions was observed, which was 80% in younger patients (20).

Recently, a study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of the nine-valent vaccine. Gardasil 9 prevented 97% of high-grade precancerous lesions of the cervix, vulva, and vagina caused by the five new high-risk HPV types (HPV31/33/45/52/58) (21). The nine-valent vaccine also generated immune responses to HPV6/11/16/18 that were as good as or better than those generated by the quadrivalent vaccine. (4, 22)

 

6. Safety of the HPV vaccine

Many studies have evaluated HPV vaccine safety, both before their commercialisation and post-release, which demonstrated no differences in side effects as compared to control groups, irrespective of age and ethnicity (23).

HPV vaccine armed against cancerAccording to the CDC, the most commonly reported side effects of the vaccines are:

  • Pain, redness, or swelling in the arm where the shot was given
  • Fever
  • Headache or feeling tired
  • Nausea
  • Muscle or joint pain

Fainting (also known as syncope) and related symptoms (such as jerking movements) is not uncommon (24), especially in teenagers. For that reason, it is recommended that people receiving the HPV vaccine sit or lie down during vaccination, and remain seated for 15 minutes after the shot. (23)

Considering the target age of vaccination (which includes women in reproductive age), pregnancy outcomes received special attention. No increase in miscarriage rates has been reported for either of the vaccines (25). In addition, pregnant women that were recorded and observed in registrative trials did not have increased rate of congenital abnormalities (26, 27, 24).

Studies have also demonstrated efficacy and safety of the vaccines in men, both in heterosexual and men who have sex with men (28).

Serious side effects are very rare (less than 0.5%) (29), the most common being persistent headache, hypertension, gastroenteritis, bronchospasm and anaphylaxis. Their reported incidence is similar to that of other compulsory vaccines types (30).

HPV vaccine third pokeCertain side effects have been a matter of concern since the introduction of the vaccine, namely autoimmune diseases (AD) (i.e., hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, Behçet’s syndrome, Raynaud’s disease, type 1 diabetes, and vitiligo), neurological disorders (such as epilepsy, paralysis, Guillain–Barré syndrome, central demyelination, and multiple sclerosis) and venous thromboembolism (a blood clot that plugs a vein). It should be mentioned that ADs are not rare in adolescents and young adults, particularly in women. Therefore, it is a real challenge to distinguish causal from temporal association. A recent study gathered the results of 9 large studies (of which one was an analysis of 42 trials together, or metanalysis) in order to investigate severe adverse reactions after the HPV vaccine. None of the included studies found evidence of increased risk of autoimmune disease, neurological disorder, or venous thromboembolism (31).

The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS), established by the World Health Organization (WHO) provides independent, scientifically rigorous advice on vaccine-safety issues. In December 2013, the committee reviewed different topics and considered all available evidence on the safety of HPV vaccines, and concluded that both commercially available vaccines are safe (32). Likewise, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Gynecologic Oncologic Committee and Subcommittee for Cervical Cancer Prevention support the continued administration of the HPV vaccines in appropriate populations (33).

7. Recent safety concerns: the chronicle of events 

HPV vaccine Japanese_SchoolgirlsAlthough some isolated cases of side effects had been described in UK and Australia (34), Japan was the first country reporting on several girls suffering from severe pain and disability; these cases were heavily publicised in newspapers, TV news and social media, but they also alarmed the medical community. Japanese physicians published later on a series of 44 girls who were diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) (35). Due to these concerns, in June 2013 the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) decided to suspend its active recommendation of HPV vaccination. This decision created intense debate among scientists and general public, which continues until nowadays (34).

In March 2015, Denmark‘s TV channel TV2 aired a documentary entitled The Vaccinated Girls – Sick and Betrayed. The journalists gathered about 60 girls from all over Denmark who became sick shortly after receiving the HPV vaccine. Among the doctors interviewed is Louise Brinth, who examined approximately 80 girls with similar symptoms potentially caused by the HPV vaccine. Dr. Brinth noted that the girls experience symptoms such as dizziness, passing out, and severe headaches. She said, “They have abdominal pain and nausea. They have weird muscle movements they cannot control. And they’re very tired… We see a pattern that screams to heaven, and that should be examined by some solid research.”

HPV vaccine Danish documentaryIn April 2015, Dr. Brinth reported in a scientific journal on 53 patients complaining of orthostatic intolerance, severe headache, excessive fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, gastrointestinal discomfort and widespread pain. Most of them were diagnosed with a rare syndrome known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), and all of them were in close temporal association with the HPV vaccine (36a, 36b).

Denmark’s documentary has had a huge impact worldwide, both in the general public and the medical community. A closed Facebook page set up for suspected victims of adverse reactions to Gardasil in Denmark tripled its -careful verified- members; similar Facebook groups were created in other countries.

At the request of Denmark, The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is currently conducting a safety review of HPV vaccines. However, the agency emphasizes that this review “does not question that the benefits of HPV vaccines outweigh their risks.”The agency also notes that while the review is being carried out, no change in the use of these products is recommended. See the EMA’s review conclusions here.

HPV vaccine reactions independent UKIn May 2015, UK’s newspaper The Independent published an article entitled: Thousands of teenage girls report feeling seriously ill after routine school cancer vaccination. The article focuses on the story of Emily Ryalls, 17, who started feeling intense pains and difficulty breathing soon after receiving the HPV vaccine.

Mrs Ryalls reported Emily’s symptoms to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and she was not alone: adverse reactions after HPV vaccination numbered 8,228, of which 2,587 were classified as “serious”; that’s substantially more that those reported with other compulsory vaccines (see graph). The MHRA, though, said it had no concerns on the numbers of adverse reactions related to the HPV vaccine and that the “expected benefits in preventing illness and death from HPV infection outweigh the known risks”.

Emily’s mother, together with other 80 families in similar situation across the UK have formed the Association for HPV Vaccine Injured Daughters (AHVID).

As stated by the newspaper “This article created significant debate among medical professionals, journalists and members of the public…”.

HPV vaccine France fiasco SV-1136-vaccin-HPVIn France, the National Security Agency of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) just published (September 2015) the results of the follow-up of more than 2 million girls aged 13-16 years, vaccinated between 2008 and 2013 to evaluate the occurrence of side effects, mainly autoimmune diseases. When analysed all the diseases together, their results showed no overall increased risk of occurrence of serious events. However, when each disease was analysed individually, a four-fold increase in the occurrence of Guillain Barre syndrome was observed. The study also found an increased risk of Inflammatory Bowel disease, but the association was weak.

The authors conclude: “…the results of the study… prove reassuring regarding the risk of autoimmune disease associated with the HPV vaccines. The expected benefits of this vaccination in terms of public health are far greater than the eventual risks the girls may be exposed to” (37). In spite of these “reassuring” results, the vaccination rate in France continue to be low (less than 30%).

HPV vaccine POTSIn September 2015, another report provided details on 45 individuals from 13 countries who developed a chronic ailment soon after receiving the HPV vaccine. “A disabling syndrome of chronic neuropathic pain, vexing fatigue, and profound autonomic dysfunction may appear after HPV vaccination,” say the authors, headed by Manuel Martínez-Lavín, MD, a specialist in chronic pain conditions from Mexico City. After a mean period of 4 years following HPV vaccination, 93% of individuals “continue to have incapacitating symptoms and remain unable to attend school or work,” write the authors (38).

POTS after HPV vaccination has also been reported in the United States.  Dr. Blitshteyn, a neurologist from New York, described six patients who developed POTS between 6 days and 2 months after HPV vaccination. All patients reported improvement over 3 years, but residual symptoms persisted (39).

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasised that controlled clinical trials in tens of thousands of individuals plus postlicensure monitoring of millions of individuals have found no causal association between HPV vaccination and atypical pain syndromes or autonomic dysfunction.

HPV vaccine Diane HarperDr. Diane Harper, an american obstetrician & gynecologist, is one of the HPV experts called in to design the clinical trials of Gardasil and Cervarix.  Although initially in favour of the vaccine, in recent years she has questioned Gardasil safety. She stated that “Gardasil has been associated with at least as many serious adverse events as there are deaths from cervical cancer developing each year”. Moreover, in an article published in December 2009 she concluded that, given the various limitations and risks of the vaccines, the benefits and risks of HPV vaccination must be weighed with the benefits and risks of HPV screening (Pap smears) to reduce cervical cancer in a cost-effective manner (40).

Dr. Harper does not support mandatory HPV vaccination for schoolchildren, because she believes that the duration of protection may be too short (see below). She has also criticised the short period of time vaccines were tried before its licensure,  and the misleading publicity carried out by the pharmaceutical companies. Learn more here.

8. Other debatable issues

Vaccination in boys

HPV vaccine is cancer prevention.

The rationale of vaccinating boys is to reduce the transmission of the HPV virus to women and to protect them against oral and anal cancers (41). Since these cancers are very rare, it has been questioned by some scientists whether is it worth to expose millions of boys to potential vaccine side effects in order to protect girls, or to prevent a so rare type of cancer (responsible for just 300 deaths in the USA); whether the benefit outweighs the risk and if men vaccination is cost effective. While countries such as Australia and the USA include boys in their vaccine recommendations, other countries (i.e., UK and France) have not yet adopted this measure.

Men who have sex with men are a special category, since they are at higher risk of anal cancer. Thus, some experts believe these men (and not every boy) should be offered the vaccine. However, this measure may be difficult to implement: in order get covered by their insurance or social security, young men may be required to declare their sexual preferences.

Immunogenicity of Gardasil vs. Cervarix

HPV vaccine ArgentinaImmunogenicity means the ability of the vaccine to provoke an immune response; in other words, the “strength” of the vaccine.

Most countries adopted vaccination with Gardasil instead of Cervarix assuming equal protection for cancer, with the “bonus” protection against genital warts. But is it really like this?

Several studies have demonstrated that Cervarix elicits stronger and longer-lasting immune response than Gardasil (42, 43).

These laboratory findings have also been confirmed by some clinical studies: Over the years, the efficacy of the Cervarix to protect vaccinated women from precancerous lesions (total vaccinated cohort-naive) was 93%, while Gardasil’s dropped to 43% (44)

Age of vaccination

HPV vaccine school girlThis subject has also raised intense debate and concern. As stated above, immune response provoked by the vaccines may be of limited duration, especially for Gardasil. This can be a serious limitation of the vaccine because, as Dr. Harper noted “… if the HPV vaccine does not last for at least 15 years, no cancers will ever be prevented; women will just get the cancers at a later time in life after the vaccine has worn off“.

If this short protection span is confirmed by clinical studies, a boost dose would solve this limitation. However, this would increase considerably the cost of the vaccine; moreover, women who don’t comply with this recommendation will become unprotected over time.

Increase of promiscuity?

Many people feared that the the HPV vaccine would lead girls to promiscuous behavior. This was actually investigated by some studies, and have proved not to be true: no increase in sexually transmitted diseases was observed among vaccinated girls (45), showing that vaccination is unlikely to promote unsafe sexual activity.

9. Unanswered questions…

  • HPV cancer vaccine flyer - 8-1/2 x 11Will the HPV vaccine reduce cervical cancer deaths in real-world conditions?
  • In light of the latest publications, should vaccination programs be halted until the situations is clarified?
  • Due to these latest concerns, will more women opt for no vaccination, missing the opportunity to be protected against cancer?
  • Since the syndromes potentially related to vaccines are difficult to diagnose, is it possible that they have been underreported in the past? Could they possibly become over reported in the future?
  • Will the vaccine create a false sense of full protection against cervical cancer, resulting in less women attending screening programs?
  • Will the vaccine lead to a reduction of the HPV types included in the vaccine, but to an increase of those not included in the vaccine?

10. Conclusion

HPV vaccine End-cervical-cancer-posterIt is indeed exciting to have a vaccine that protects against cancer. After seeing women dying from cervical cancer, I truly wish that cervical cancer will be eradicated in the future. But we MUST be sure that we don’t create more harm than good in the process.

HPV vaccine smear for a smear campaignI am in favor of vaccines. Vaccines have done a lot of good to humanity (just imagine if we would still have small pox, or poliomyelitis…). It is true that every single medical practice may come with side effects, and this include vaccines. But we MUST know exactly what are the vaccine risks, and whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

I firmly believe that governments, scientific societies and pharmaceutical companies MUST do an effort to inform people in a responsible and honest manner, so that all of us -young people, parents and physicians- continue to believe in good science, and vaccines don’t lose their credibility.

It will take 10 to 20 years to figure out the true benefit of the HPV vaccine. In the meantime, keep in mind that Pap tests never killed anyone, on the contrary, they have saved millions of lives. Therefore, don’t forget your Pap smear!

 

Read on the latest events related to the HPV vaccine here.

 

References

  1. International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization. Globocan 2012: Estimated Cancer Incidence, Mortality and Prevalence Worldwide in 2012
  2. CDC Grand Rounds: Reducing the Burden of HPV-Associated Cancer and Disease. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) January 31, 2014 / 63(04);69-72
  3. Human Papillomavirus and Related Diseases Report. hpvcentre.net March 20th, 2015
  4. Hartwig S, et al: Estimation of the epidemiological burden of HPV-related anogenital cancers, precancerous lesions, and genital warts in women and men in Europe: Potential additional benefit of a nine-valent second generation HPV vaccine compared to first generation HPV vaccines. Papillomavirus Research, In Press (Available online 16 June 2015)
  5. Patel H, et al: Systematic review of the incidence and prevalence of genital warts. BMC Infectious Diseases 2013, 13:39
  6. “FDA approves Gardasil 9 for prevention of certain cancers caused by five additional types of HPV” (press release). 10 December 2014.
  7. Gardasil® 9: new HPV vaccine approved in the European Union. The European Commission grants marketing authorisation for the first 9-valent HPV vaccine” (press release) Sanofi Pasteur MSD, June 17, 2015.
  8. Human Papillomavirus Vaccination. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee Opinion Number 641, September 2015
  9. Recommendations on the Use of Quadrivalent Human Papillomavirus Vaccine in Males — Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), December 23, 2011 / 60(50);1705-1708
  10. Markowitz L, et al: Quadrivalent Human Papillomavirus Vaccine Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), March 23, 2007 / 56(RR02);1-24
  11. Castellsagué X, et al: HPV vaccination against cervical cancer in women above 25 years of age: key considerations and current perspectives. Gynecologic Oncology 115 (2009) S15–S23
  12. Villa L, et al: Prophylactic quadrivalent human papillomavirus (types 6, 11, 16, and 18) L1 virus-like particle vaccine in young women: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled multicentre phase II efficacy trial. Lancet Oncol 2005; 6: 271–78
  13. The FUTURE II Study Group: Quadrivalent Vaccine against Human Papillomavirus to Prevent High-Grade Cervical Lesions. N Engl J Med 2007;356:1915-27
  14. Paavonen J, et al: Efficacy of human papillomavirus (HPV)-16/18 AS04-adjuvanted vaccine against cervical infection and precancer caused by oncogenic HPV types (PATRICIA): final analysis of a double-blind, randomised study in young women. Lancet, Vol 374, No. 9686, p301–314, 25 July 2009
  15. Lehtinen M, et al: Overall efficacy of HPV-16/18 AS04-adjuvanted vaccine against grade 3 or greater cervical intraepithelial neoplasia: 4-year end-of-study analysis of the randomised, double-blind PATRICIA trial. Lancet Oncol, Vol 13, No. 1, p89–99, January 2012
  16. Harper D: Prophylactic human papillomavirus vaccines to prevent cervical cancer: review of the Phase II and III trials. Therapy 2008, 5 (3), 313-324
  17. Tabrizi SN, et al: Fall in human papillomavirus prevalence following a national vaccination program. J Infect Dis. 2012; 206(11):1645-1651
  18. Mariani L, et al: Early direct and indirect impact of quadrivalent HPV (4HPV) vaccine on genital warts: a systematic review. Adv Ther, 32 (2015), pp. 10–30
  19. Crowe E, et al: Effectiveness of quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccine for the prevention of cervical abnormalities: case-control study nested within a population based screening programme in Australia. BMJ 2014;348:g1458 
  20. Baldur-Felskov B, et at: early impact of Human Papillomavirus Vaccination on cervical Neoplasia—Nationwide Follow-up ofYoung Danish Women. J Natl Cancer Inst (2014) 106(3): djt460 doi:10.1093/jnci/djt460
  21. Joura E, et al: A 9-Valent HPV Vaccine against Infection and Intraepithelial Neoplasia in Women. N Engl J Med 2015; 372:711-723
  22. Petrosky E, et al: Use of 9-Valent Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine: Updated HPV Vaccination Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), March 27, 2015 / 64(11);300-304
  23. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine Safety. Updated September 28, 2015
  24. Slade BA, et al: Postlicensure safety surveillance for quadrivalent human papillomavirus recombinant vaccine. JAMA, 2009;302(7):750–757
  25. Wacholder S, et al: Risk of miscarriage with bivalent vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) types 16 and 18: pooled analysis of two randomised controlled trials. BMJ 2010;340:c712
  26. Garland SM, et al: Pregnancy and infant outcomes in the clinical trials of a human papillomavirus type 6/11/16/18 vaccine: a combined analysis of five randomized controlled trials. Obstet Gynecol 2009;114(6):1179–1188
  27. Dana A, Buchanan KM, Goss MA, et al. Pregnancy outcomes from the pregnancy registry of a human papillomavirus type 6/11/16/18 vaccine. Obstet Gynecol. 2009;114(6):1170–1178
  28. Moscicki A, et al: HPV in men: an update. J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2011 Jul; 15(3): 231–234
  29. Gonçalves AK, et al: Safety, tolerability and side effects of human papillomavirus vaccines: a systematic quantitative review. Braz J Infect Dis, Vol 18, Issue 6, Nov–Dec 2014, Pages 651–659
  30. Lu B, et al: Efficacy and safety of prophylactic vaccines against cervical HPV infection and diseases among women: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Infect Dis. 2011;11:13
  31. De Vincenzo R, et al: Long-term efficacy and safety of human papillomavirus vaccination. International Journal of Women’s Health 2014:6 999–1010
  32. World Health Organization. Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety, 11–12 December 2013: Human papillomavirus vaccines safety (HPV). Wkly Epidemiol Rec. 2014;89(7):58–60
  33. Denny L: Safety of HPV vaccination: a FIGO statement. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2013;123(3):187–188
  34. Wilson R, et al: HPV Vaccination in Japan. The Continuing Debate and Global Impacts. A Report of the CSIS Global Health Policy Center. April 2015
  35. Kinoshita T, et al: Peripheral Sympathetic Nerve Dysfunction in Adolescent Japanese Girls Following Immunization with the Human Papillomavirus Vaccine. Intern Med 53: 2185-2200, 2014
  36. a: Brinth L, et al: Suspected side effects to the quadrivalent human papilloma vaccine. Dan Med J 2015;62(4):A5064 b: Brinth L, et al: Orthostatic intolerance and postural tachycardia syndrome as suspected adverse effects of vaccination against human papilloma virus. Vaccine, 2015 May 21;33(22):2602-5
  37. Vaccination contre les infections à HPV et risque de maladies auto-immunes : une étude Cnamts/ANSM rassurante – Point d’information 13/09/2015
  38. Martínez-Lavín M, et: HPV vaccination syndrome. A questionnaire-based study. Clinical Rheumatology pp 1-3. Online 10 September 2015
  39. Blitshteyn S. Postural tachycardia syndrome following human papillomavirus vaccination. Eur J Neurol, Vol 21, 1, 135–139, 2014
  40. Harper, D: Current prophylactic HPV vaccines and gynecologic premalignancies. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology 2009, 21:457–464
  41. Giuliano A, et al: Efficacy of Quadrivalent HPV Vaccine against HPV Infection and Disease in Males. N Engl J Med 2011;364:401-11
  42. Einstein M, et al: Comparative immunogenicity and safety of human papillomavirus (HPV)- 16/18 vaccine and HPV-6/11/16/18 vaccine: follow-up from months 12-24 in a Phase III randomized study of healthy women aged 18-45 years. Human Vaccines, vol. 7, no. 12, pp. 1343–1358, 2011
  43. Barzon L, et al: Neutralizing and cross-neutralizing antibody titres induced by bivalent and quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccines in the target population of organized vaccination programmes. Vaccine, vol. 32, no. 41, pp. 5357–5362, 2014
  44. Di Mario S, et al: Are the Two Human Papillomavirus Vaccines Really Similar? A Systematic Review of Available Evidence: Efficacy of the Two Vaccines against HPV. Journal of Immunology Research, Volume 2015 (2015), Article ID 435141, 13 pages
  45. Jena A, et al: Incidence of Sexually Transmitted Infections After Human Papillomavirus Vaccination Among Adolescent Females. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):617-623

 

Photo Credits

Intro: Getty images; 1: curecancer.org; 2: m2.behance.net; 3: (collage) wikimedia commons; 4: cityofchicago.org; nkytribune.com; 5: english.cri.cnhpv.health.gov.au; 6: marketingmag.cascontent.cdninstagram.com; 7: Japan: wikimedia commons; Denmark: vaccineimpact.com; UK: independent.co.uk; France: science-et-vie.com; POTS: pinterest.com; Harper: initiativecitoyenne.be; 8: bphc.orgmigueljara.files.wordpress.comlh3.googleusercontent.com; 9: healthvermont.gov; 10: compasscayman.comi.dailymail.co.uk

THE MORNING AFTER PILL: FACTS AND FICTION

UPDATED JANUARY 2018Morning after pill

“The morning after pill is dangerous”. “You can’t take it more than once or twice in your lifetime”. “If you take it you won’t be able to become pregnant in the future”…

You may have heard all these rumours about the morning after pill and, in case “an accident” happens, you will think twice whether to take it or not… The truth is, the morning after pill has been around for more that 40 years now, but still many misconceptions and controversies persist.

In this article we will try to sort fact from fiction regarding the morning after pill in order to help you make your educated decision…

What is the morning after pill?

Emergency contraception by doctor emergency-contraception_171x200_M9201502The morning after pill, or post-coital pill is a form of emergency contraception that will prevent you from becoming pregnant after an unprotected intercourse, or if a condom breaks during intercourse.

In most countries, there are two types of emergency contraception pills (ECP):

-one containing levonorgestrel (LNG: Norlevo, Levonelle, Plan B, in different countries)

-another containing ulipristal acetate (ella in the USA, EllaOne in Europe).

In many countries such as the UK, France, USA, you may be able to get it (just LNG or both of them) without a prescription.

-When these ECPs are not available, certain ordinary birth control pills can be used as emergency contraception. The regimen is one dose of 4 to 6 pills -depending on the brand- followed by a second dose 12 hours later (the Yuzpe regimen, read more here). If you choose this method, though, it may be a good idea to talk to a health care provider for guidance.

Mifepristone is another highly effective emergency contraception method, available in few countries. However, this medication is also used to induce medical abortion, which may limit its widespread acceptability for use as ECP.

How does it work? Does it cause abortion?

The morning after pill prevents pregnancy by temporarily blocking the egg from being released (that is, inhibits ovulation). In addition, it may stop fertilization. Some people are concerned that the ECP may prevent a fertilised egg from becoming implanted in the uterus, which may be considered as an early abortion. Recent studies have shown that this medication is not effective when ovulation has already occurred, thus it does not seem to prevent implantation. Furthermore, in case an implantation has already occurred before you took it, the morning after pill will not provoke an abortion.

Do I have to take it right away?

Actually “morning after” is a bit of a misnomer: you can take ECP up to five days following unprotected sex. 

Until recently, it was accepted that pills containing LNG (Norlevo, Levonelle, Plan B) should be taken within 72 hours (three days) after the “accident”. However, recent evidence shows that LNG pills continue to be moderately effective if started between 72 and 120 hours; therefore LNG ECP can be taken up to five days after unprotected intercourse.The same is true for EllaOne/ella: it can be safely used up to five days after non-protected sex.

But the sooner you take it, the more effective it is (see below).

Is it effective?

Emergency contraception uhoh_poster_collageNeither type of morning-after pill is 100 per cent effective, but the failure rate is quite low. Like we said, you should take it as soon as possible after unprotected sex, no matter which pill you use. If you take LNG pills within the first 24 hours after sex, they reduce your risk of pregnancy by up to 95%; the efficacy will be reduced the more you delay the ingestion of the pill, roughly to 85% the 2nd day, 60% the third day.

Recent studies have confirmed that EllaOne/ella is more effective than the LNG pill, not only when taken 3-5 days after an unprotected intercourse, but also within the first three days.

Will I get severe side effects?

Emergency contraception pills are very safe: no deaths or serious complications have been ever linked to their use. Moreover, emergency contraception pills do not harm future fertility.

In general, side effects are uncommon and generally mild: the most common are nausea, vomits and menstrual abnormalities (your period may come earlier, later, with more or less blood than usual); more rare side effects are fatigue, breast tenderness, headache and abdominal pain.

There is some controversy as to whether the morning after pill is associated with an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy outside the uterus, usually inside the fallopian tube). Available evidence suggests that ECP do not increase the chance of ectopic pregnancy; moreover, like all contraceptive methods, they reduce the absolute risk of ectopic pregnancy by preventing pregnancy in general.

Is there any limit to the number of times I can take it?

Emergency contraception womant taking 47929

It has been suggested (mostly by internet rumours) that it could be dangerous to take the ECP more than one or twice in your life. The following is an excerpt from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) site which throws light on this subject:

“There are no restrictions for the medical eligibility of who can use ECPs. Some women, however, use ECPs repeatedly (…) as their main method of contraception. In such situations, further counselling needs to be given on what other and more regular contraceptive options may be more appropriate and more effective. Frequent and repeated ECP use may be harmful for women with conditions classified as medical eligibility criteria (MEC) category 2, 3,or 4 for combined hormonal contraception or Progestin-only contraceptives (POC). Frequent use of emergency contraception can result in increased side-effects, such as menstrual irregularities, although their repeated use poses no known health risks”.

In other words, you shouldn’t take the ECP very often because: 1) you’d rather take the regular contraceptive pills and you will be better protected from unwanted pregnancy; 2) you may get some abnormal periods, BUT IN MOST WOMEN, ECP ARE NOT DANGEROUS! 3) in case you have a severe health problems such as history of stroke, blood clots, certain cancers, etc, then you should avoid frequent and repeat use.

In fact, the Royal College of Obstetricians, says that the LNG pill can be used even more than once in the same cycle. However, it does not recommend taking EllaOne in this way because, being a newer medication, we have not enough evidence for repeated use in the same cycle (although recent evidence indicates that it can be safely used more than once per cycle).

If you find yourself using the morning after pill very often, it might mean that you haven’t yet found a regular method of birth control that works for you. In that case, talk to your doctor about some of your other options.

If ECP fails and I get pregnant, will it affect my unborn baby?

LNG has been used for many years, and evidence shows that there is no increased risk of birth defects or other effects on the baby; new data supports that Ellaone/ella is as safe as LNG and no birth defects have been reported so far.

Can I take ECP if I breastfeed?

You may safely take the LNG pill if you are breastfeeding. Although EllaOne was not recommended during lactation until recently, updated guidelines state that ellaOne is not contraindicated for breastfeeding women, but that breastmilk should not be given to a baby for 24 hours (in the USA guidelines) or one week (in Europe) after a woman has taken the product.

Some final warnings…

  • Emergency contraception keep-calm-and-take-the-morning-after-pill-7The ECP will protect you from an unwanted pregnancy, but it will not provide any protection from sexually transmitted diseases. It is very important that you are aware of safe sexual practices and  incorporate them into your relationships.
  • There is some evidence that the LNG pill might be less effective in women weighting 75kg or more, while the efficacy of EllaOne does not seem to be affected by body weight. Thus, if you are over 75 kg you may prefer to take EllaOne.
  • The efficacy of the ECP will be decreased if you vomit after taking it. If you vomit within 2 hours of taking LNG pill, or 3 hours of taking EllaOne, you will need to take it again.
  • Contraindications: according to the WHO: “There are no medical contraindications to the use of levonorgestrel emergency contraception pills”. Some experts advise against its use in women with severe liver disease.
  • Interaction with other medications: some medications may eventually reduce the effectiveness of the ECP: Saint John’s wort, barbiturates, rifampicin, among others.
  • When to see your doctor: although the ECP may delay your period, contact you doctor if your period doesn’t come some days after the expected time. Likewise, it’s very important that you see your doctor right away if you have irregular bleeding and abdominal pain, to rule out the possibility of an ectopic pregnancy.

The bottom line:

Emergency contraception plan B 1258645.largeThe emergency contraception pill is a safe and effective method of contraception. Most of the rumours you may have heard  about it, are unfounded.

Having said that, it should not be abused.

The (very clever) brand name of the ECP in the USA, Plan B, indicates clearly how this medication should be used: as an option when your plan A (your regular contraception) failed…or wasn’t there.

Related reading:

Contraception: 14 common myths – busted

Fact or myth? Truths, half-truths and misconceptions about the Birth Control Pill

References:

World Health Organization: Emergency Contraception. Fact sheet N°244  June 2017

Trussell J, Raymond E, Cleland K; Emergency Contraception: A Last Chance to Prevent Unintended Pregnancy. November 2017