September 25, 2012

Contraceptive R&D: neglected and in need of innovation

University of California, San Francisco
Professor, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences
University of California, San Francisco

In this guest post, Kirsten Thompson, MPH, and J. Joseph Speidel, MD, MPH, of the University of California, San Francisco, write about the need for new and improved contraceptive options worldwide.

Today marks World Contraception Day, and there is much to celebrate about the successes of modern family planning. Women all over the world are having smaller, healthier, and more prosperous families, thanks in part to increased access to safe and effective contraception. As Melinda Gates points out, there is no controversy in empowering women to decide if and when to have a child.

But the contraceptive revolution is far from finished. An estimated 222 million women in developing countries want to delay their next child or limit the size of their family, but are not using a contraceptive. As we near the deadlines for the Millennium Development Goals and the Every Woman, Every Child campaign, improving contraceptive access is one of the most cost effective solutions to reduce maternal and infant mortality, and prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Voluntary use of contraceptives already prevents 218 million accidental pregnancies, 118,000 maternal deaths, and 1.8 million infant deaths each year—we could prevent millions more accidental pregnancies, and maternal and infant deaths with expanded access.

Voluntary use of contraceptives already prevents 218 million accidental pregnancies, 118,000 maternal deaths, and 1.8 million infant deaths each year—we could prevent millions more with expanded access and increased R&D. Photo credit: PATH.

Global leaders have committed to help expand access to family planning services, particularly in nations with underdeveloped health systems. While expanding access is critical to reaching global health and development goals, we also need to reinvigorate contraceptive research and development (R&D).

Do we need new contraceptives?

We’ve learned a lot about how women and men use family planning over the last 50 years, including what they like and don’t like about various contraceptives. In developing countries, the most common reasons for not using contraception—cited by 20 percent to 50 percent of married women at risk of an accidental pregnancy—were side effects, health concerns, and inconvenience. Up to half of women had stopped using a method because they experienced or feared side effects. It’s clear that some women find hormonal side effects unacceptable.

We’ve also learned that humans find it almost universally difficult to take daily medication. Over half of people taking daily medicine regularly fail to take it, whether it’s a birth control pill, a medicine to treat high blood pressure, or an antibiotic to prevent a transplanted organ from being rejected. Taking any medication inconsistently means is doesn’t work as well. So in reality, we have only two highly effective and reversible contraceptives: the implant and the intrauterine device (IUD). Both of these require highly skilled healthcare providers for placement and removal, and for some women, they are prohibitively expensive.

So we need to focus our efforts on creating, safe, effective, and innovative methods of family planning that can be used in low-resource settings. Research shows that there is demand for methods that don’t yet exist, such as:

No one contraceptive method works for everyone, and we know that offering a wide range of methods increases satisfaction with family planning services and increases the number of couples using contraception.

Public funding for contraceptive R&D is critical and effective

Of the contraceptives now available in the United States, the majority were developed with public funding at universities and nonprofit organizations, or with philanthropic support. The original birth control pill became available after support from philanthropists, and a new IUD under development by Medicines360 will follow suit. The Mirena and ParaGard IUDs, Ella emergency contraception, and the contraceptive vaginal ring were all developed with US public funding. The first implantable contraceptive Norplant, the female condom, and the new SILCS diaphragm were all developed with philanthropic and public funding. The injectable contraceptive Depo Provera was developed with private funding, but the studies that allowed it to be marketed in the US were carried out with public funding.

The public sector—including the US Agency for International Development, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization—has a great track record for contraceptive R&D. The public sector is also able to conduct R&D at approximately one-tenth the cost of private pharmaceutical companies. With mergers and new management at large pharmaceutical companies in the last decade, none of these companies have active contraceptive R&D programs.

The US public sector has been a global leader in past contraceptive R&D, but funding for this work has steadily declined in the last 30 years. The time is right for the US government to reinvigorate its commitment to leadership in this field, and reap the benefits in maternal and child health globally.

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