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Birth control under new scrutiny

By Tristen Chun | April 10, 2003

Since the advent of oral contraceptives in the early 1960s, their availability, convenience and effectiveness have made them the most popular method of birth control in the United States. However, scientists are beginning to question the safety of these birth control "pills," and raise concerns about the possible role they may play in the development of various cancers.

Scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France and the London-based charity Cancer Research UK have revealed that oral contraceptives could increase the risk of cervical cancer development among women.

According to their review, the long-term use of birth control pills may increase the development of cancer in the cervix, the narrow, lower portion of the uterus. Women who used the pills for more than a decade doubled the risk compared to women who have never taken them.

The birth control pill was introduced to the public in the early 1960s. Birth control pills are synthetic hormones that mimic the way real estrogen and progesterone work in a women's body. The pill essentially prevents ovulation without introducing new agents. New eggs are released by a women on the pill since her body is tricked into believing she is already pregnant.

Previous research had shown that a woman's risk of developing breast cancer might increase with the amount of time she has used the pills.

Two types of oral contraceptives are currently available in the United States. The more common combined oral contraceptive pills use both estrogen and progesterone to suppress ovulation and to make the lining of the uterus thinner, which makes pregnancy less likely.

The contraceptives are usually taken for 21 days, during which gonadotrophin output level is suppressed. This period is followed by a 7-day break, which leads to a withdrawal bleeding that simulates menstruation. This 28-day scheme mimics the natural cycle.

The other type is the progestagen-only contraceptives. Unlike the combined pills, these "minipills" only contain one hormone, progesterone. They are taken continuously over a period of eight weeks to five years, and work by making cervical mucus thicker, blocking the sperm entry. These pills do not have estrogen related side effects, but menstrual irregularity may result in negative psychological effects among women.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a common misconception about the pill is that is can help in preventing HIV/AIDS. The truth is that the pill does not serve as a mechanism to prevent HIV.

Therefore mong sexually active women, the only way to reduce the risk of HIV or other STDs is through the consistent and correct use of latex condoms. The CDC even advocates the use of multiple condoms.

Some minor side effects of these hormonal contraceptives include weight gain, headaches, libido changes, acne, etc. The life-threatening associated effects include possible development of breast and cervical cancers, but the risk associated with these contraceptives is less than that from pregnancy, childbirth and abortion.

The effectiveness of oral contraceptives in birth control and possible reduction of heart attack risk seem to outweigh these risks for the majority of women. These risks are also published in the study.

Scientists are currently conducting research to determine whether the risk of developing these cancers can be decreased if women stop taking oral contraceptives.

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