I’m trying to get hold of the press release or poster or whatever it was from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine that triggered this Guardian article, here: ‘Contraceptive gel could offer alternative to pill’. It’s an opinion piece which says ‘As with the pill, though, these are hormone-based treatments that can have unpredictable consequences – many of which, to date, have been under-researched’…and goes on ‘And, as yet, none of the side effects associated with other hormone treatments have been observed with users of the gel. More promisingly still, it can be used while breastfeeding – unlike the pill, which can frequently interfere with milk supply.’
It’s quite amazing, really – for a drug that has so far been trialled in 18 patients for 7 months (rather better reported on the BBC news website) we get this analysis : ‘a tube of gel might just revolutionise sesx’. So far, I’d say, we know that in this tiny amount of women we have some rather short term data which is somewhat incomplete. This study is interesting for what it is – a tiny step in one particular direction that may yet be shown not to work, or to have significant side effects. It merits absolutely nothing in the way of celebration.
Let’s look at the Guardian article again and check the facts. In fact,the progesterone only pill is safe to use in breastfeeding, as well as other progesterone only methods. If you want to look at the number and type of side effects comparing this gel to the pill, you are going to need a sample size capable of finding them – 18 patients and 7 months does not cut it. As for a dearth of research looking for side effects for the contraceptive pill, this claim simply doesn’t add up – go to PubMed and you will find many large cohort studies, with millions of participants, which have been responsible for elucidating common and less common adverse outcomes of contraceptive use. Finally, the anecdotal idea that a lowering of libido is caused by a contraceptive implant and proven by an improvement when it was removed – unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to understand how cause and effect are (un)related or proved.
This isn’t to say that non scientists shouldn’t report or have opinions on medical stories. Rather, medicine should be scrutinised by more people – but one has to work hard to make sure the facts are straight. This is a bigger problem, too, when scientists have over-hyped their own research (and I don’t know in this case if this happened.)