"We believe it's a dangerous drug, and the most important thing here is to allow women to make an informed choice and know what the comparable risks are before they put a drug in their body."
-- From "Birth control pill concerns bring lawsuits but few solid answers" by Tammy Worth, Special to the Los Angeles Times 4/19/10
When the oral contraceptives Yasmin and Yaz came on the market in 2001 and 2006, respectively, they were thought to be safer than other birth control pills because they contained a different kind of synthetic progestin.
But in a flurry of lawsuits against the pills' maker, Bayer HealthCare, attorneys claim that the progestin contained in the pills, drospirenone, is the cause of health problems, including deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the deep veins), strokes, heart attacks and gallbladder disease.
As of mid-February, about 1,100 lawsuits had been filed in the United States against Bayer, which stands behind the safety of the pills.
Research on the issue is divided. Some studies have found drospirenone to pose no greater health risk than other birth control pills; some studies show a sixfold greater risk of getting blood clots, even in young, healthy women. More research is being performed on the safety of the contraceptives, but for now, women considering taking the pills will need to weigh the contradictory information themselves.
Oral contraceptives control unwanted pregnancies by using hormones that block ovulation. The first of these pills, introduced in the United States in the early 1960s, contained high doses of estrogen. They were quickly found to raise the risk of stroke, blood clots and heart attacks.
Second-generation pills introduced in the 1970s contained lower amounts of estrogen combined with synthetic progestins, including one called levonorgestrel. These reduced the risk of blood clots but caused side effects such as weight gain and acne in many women.
The 1980s brought third-generation pills containing different synthetic progestins, such as one called desogestrel. These were later found to be associated with a higher risk of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.
The fourth-generation pills — Yaz, Yasmin and Ocella, a generic version — contain estrogen and yet another progestin, drospirenone. They were created not just to prevent pregnancy but to also reduce the side effects of previous pills and to treat premenstrual dysphoric disorder (severe cases of depression, anxiety, headaches and other symptoms).
Now the contraceptives are not just the subject of lawsuits, they're also under scrutiny by groups such as Public Citizen over their safety. The FDA is testing the safety of Yaz and other pills in an ongoing study.
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