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Lisa Ling 'Views' New Birth Control Method

By Adele Slaughter, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

As the youngest co-host on ABC's The View, Lisa Ling is not afraid to mix it up and challenge the status quo.  But when it comes to birth control, she's playing it safe.

"For me, as the young woman on the show and coming from a show that discusses so many female issues," says Ling, "I just think it is important that women know all of the options that are available."

And Ling is promoting one of the latest contraceptive options for women.

"I am using NuvaRing, which is a contraceptive device that you insert into the vagina," explains Ling. "It lasts a month, as opposed to the oral contraceptive, the pill, that you have to take every day. For people like me who have busy lives, it just makes life a little bit easier because you don't have to remember to take a pill everyday."

NuvaRing works similarly to the pill but is inserted into the vagina where it releases hormones, estonogestrel and ethinyl estradiol, for 3 weeks. Women have to remember to remove it once a month and re-insert it one week later.

"It is easy to put in," says Ling, who is a paid spokesperson for NuvaRing. "I don't think it has ever come out of anyone. It is two inches wide and an eighth of an inch in diameter. You insert it very discretely, unlike other forms of contraception which have to be administered by a doctor."

 With a predicted 99% success rate, the device can only be prescribed by a physician and carries many of the same side effects as the pill, which include:

  • A higher risk for blood clots, heart attack, and stroke
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Vaginitis
  • Irritation

Weighing in

"When I first inserted it, I had a little bit of nausea, just as I did when I started the pill," says Ling, "but there was no weight gain, and I'm very conscious about that."

"Every patient I have, when I introduce a new method to them, ask 'Doctor is this going to make me fat?'" says Westoff, who ran Organon's trials for the NuvaRing and is Medical Director of Family Planning Clinic at Columbia Presbyterian. "This is a new method that is neutral with regard to weight."

"I think that the NuvaRing is better than the pill in many ways," notes Westoff. "Women who find they have an upset stomach with the pill might do better with this. Also bleeding patterns were tracked with the women in the study and we found that there was less spotting and more regular bleeding with the NuvaRing."

"Everybody forgets that pregnancy is kind of dangerous, and birth control is always safer than pregnancy," adds Westoff.

"We had the opportunity to get a small number of NuvaRings on an introductory basis from Organon," Dr. Mark Nichols, medical director of Planned Parenthood affiliate in Oregon. "So far the response has been very positive with this method. But it is too early to give much more than a rough sense of things."

Approximately 60 million women are in the reproductive age group.

"Forty million of those women are sexually active and don't want to be pregnant right now," says Westoff.. "Probably 36 million women are using a method but that doesn't mean they're all happy with their method, or that everybody is using the most effective method."

Option plan

Of the 6 million pregnancies each year, doctors estimate that around 3 million are unplanned.

Some women who get pregnant unexpectedly are not using any birth control method; but for many, the method they were using failed. The plethora of contraceptive choices for women include:

  • Barrier Methods - "The best of the barrier method is the condom," says Westoff.  "While they're a moderately good contraceptive, they are the only things we have as prevention for infection."

  •  Hormonal Methods - "The main birth control method American women use, separate from sterilization, is hormonal contraception," says Westoff. "We know hormonal contraception is highly effective, in fact, 99% effective. One of the problems with the pill is that it's just kind of hard to remember, therefore it does not achieve its theoretical effectiveness."

  • Intrauterine Devices - "The IUD's are underutilized in the US," adds Westoff, "and are highly effective, safe methods."

  • Surgical Sterilization - "American women choose sterilization more than anybody else in the world," says Westoff, "which shows how serious American women are about protecting themselves. The other thing it says is that we have a wacky health care insurance system. Since women cannot get coverage for reversible methods, they have turned to sterilization."

  •  Traditional methods - Family planning -- coitus interruptus, or abstinence during fertile times -- can work for extremely motivated couples living the kind of lifestyle to support the discipline and accuracy needed.

"Accidental pregnancies are medically dangerous as well as psychologically and morally stressful to people," notes Westoff. "People have to decide if an abortion is acceptable, if they can fit another child into their life. It is something all of my patients wish to avoid where possible. Something like the NuvaRing can make it easy for women to be successful preventing pregnancy."

Getting personal

"I think that many women will not be too crazy with the idea of inserting this device into their vaginas, but every contraceptive has a downside," says Nichols. "In terms of the side effect profile, it looks good in terms of the clinical trials. The vaginal irritation is very low. The hormone levels are lower than birth control pills so it is hoped that side effects will be less."

Still there is no single method that will work for every woman. Women who shouldn't take the pill for medical reasons shouldn't use NuvaRing.

"If women are happy with their current method they should stick with it," says Westoff. 

"The big competitor to the ring will be the patch," says Nichols. "It will be interesting to see how that falls out. The patch has just arrived and the response has been positive, but a fair number have had skin reactions to the adhesive itself. So they cannot be long term users."

Birth control methods and safer sex practices are separate considerations. Condoms remain the only method that protects individuals from sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.

"On the show we preach a message of safety," says Ling.  "For safety, you should always use one method in conjunction with condoms."

• NuvaRing Information

• FDA-Protection against unintended pregnancy

• Ricki Lake talks about teen pregnancy

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Click here for more information on birth control.

Created: 12/5/2002  -  Adele Slaughter & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

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