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Look what's 40 -- the pill


May 9, 2000
Web posted at: 1:51 p.m. EDT (1751 GMT)

(CNN) -- On May 9, 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for marketing. Since that time, millions of American women have used it, making it the most common form of birth control.

While the pill is about 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when taken correctly, a lot of women still believe there are substantial risks associated with its use. According to a Gallup poll conducted for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 41 percent of the women surveyed held this view.

VideoCNN's Rhonda Rowland examines the myths and realities of the pill, four decades after it was made available to women.
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TEST See how the female reproductive system works and the effects of birth control


But doctors say women can safely take the pill for decades. A study following 46,000 women for 25 years found those who took the pill had no more health risks than those who never took it.

There were medical problems, mainly with dangerous blood clots, when the pill was first introduced 40 years ago. The original version contained at least five times the estrogen that it does today, and ten times the progestin. With the reduction in estrogen and progestin, these problems have significantly decreased.

"The blood clots, the pulmonary emboli to the lung, blood clots to the lung, heart attacks and deaths related to oral contraceptives are remarkably decreased now," said obstetrician/gynecologist Robert Hatcher of Emory University.

But today's pill can have side effects.

"They are things like bad headaches, depression, decreased interest in sex, decreased ability to have orgasms, and those are very real," said Hatcher.

On the other hand, for some women using the pill improves these aspects.

Experts say the pill is not only safer now, but has some medical benefits besides preventing unwanted preganancies. By suppressing ovulation, it actually reduces the risk of two types of cancer: ovarian, which affects the ovaries and endometrial, which affects the lining of the uterus.

That protective effect lasts for years -- up to 15 years after a woman stops taking the pill, according to Hatcher.

Research has also shown the hormones in birth control pills can help prevent ovarian cysts, benign breast disease and acne. One type of oral contraceptive has been approved by the FDA for treatment of acne.

"The pills today are really different. And when we say pills are safer today, we're not just whistling Dixie," Hatcher said. "They really are much lower dose and we know who to give them to and who not to give them to."

For instance, women who smoke and are over age 45 should not use oral contraceptives.

What hasn't changed is the need for women in the U.S. to have a doctor's prescription in order to receive birth control pills. Many other countries have made the pill available over-the-counter, and in June the FDA will consider making it available in the U.S. without prescription.

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Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical
The Billings Ovulation Method of Natural Family Planning
Planned Parenthood - Birth Control
Oral Contraceptives FAQ
USHS Pharmacy Services - VT SHC Recommendations on The Pill
Food and Drug Administration - Protecting Against Unintended Pregnancy: A Guide to Contraceptive Choices - June 1997

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