NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - More U.S. women seem to be using the "morning-after" pill now that the emergency contraceptive is available over-the-counter, a new study finds.
Researchers found that between 2006 and 2008, about twice as many women ages 15 to 44 said they had used emergency contraception, compared with four to six years earlier -- when it was still restricted to prescription-only.
The emergency contraceptive Plan B has been available in the U.S. since 1999. The pills, which contain the hormone progestin, 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 -- and the sooner, the better. After the first 12 hours the risk of pregnancy increases by 50 percent.
So in 2006, after years of political controversy, the U.S. approved Plan B for "behind-the-counter" sales to adults -- meaning they could get it from a pharmacy without waiting for a prescription. The age restriction was later lowered to 17 in 2009.
In the new study, researchers looked at data from a periodic government survey to see how national rates of emergency-contraception use may be changing.
They found that of more than 6,300 sexually active U.S. women surveyed between 2006 and 2008, nearly 10 percent said they had ever used emergency contraception.
That compared with a rate of about 4 percent among women surveyed in 2002, according to findings published in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
"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, "its use still seems relatively low, given that it's easy to access. So there's room for improvement."
Kavanaugh and her colleagues think that media attention is likely the reason for the increase in emergency-contraception use in 2006-2008.
The researchers found no change over time in the percentage of women who said their doctors had discussed emergency contraception with them. In both survey periods, 3
percent of women said they'd received such counseling in the past year.
That lack of change is not especially surprising, according to Kavanaugh, since smaller studies have suggested that health providers are not often bringing the topic up.
She suggested that women who want to learn more about emergency contraception ask their doctors -- but as part of a discussion on all of their options for preventing unplanned pregnancy.
Emergency contraception is not intended as an alternative to routine, and more effective, birth-control options, like the Pill.
Instead, experts say, it should be used as a backup when routine birth-control fails -- such as when a diaphragm slips, a condom breaks or a woman forgets to take her birth control pills. Emergency contraception is also used in cases of rape.
The hope, Kavanaugh noted, 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.
Regardless, Kavanaugh told Reuters Health, 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.
Along with the Plan B product One-Step, there is a generic equivalent called Next Choice available without a prescription. Side effects of both products include abdominal pain, fatigue, headache and nausea.
The current study was funded by government and private grants, and the researchers report no financial conflicts of interest.
SOURCE: bit.ly/l5Pz32 Fertility and Sterility, online April 1, 2011.