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Thursday, 7 January, 1999, 12:30 GMT
A short history of the pill
The pill was launched in the UK in 1961
The pill has been described as the most significant medical advance of the 20th century.

Hailed as playing a major role in the women's liberation movement, it was associated with the swinging sixties and greater sexual freedom.

But it has caused much controversy over its short life span due to health scares and concerns about teenagers taking the pill.

Introduced in the UK in 1961 for married women only, it is now used by 3.5 million women between the ages of 16 and 49.

That means that a quarter of this age group are using the pill, which now comes in 32 different forms.

Developed by American biologist Dr Gregory Pincus, the pill works by suppressing ovulation.

Tested in the 1950s on Puerto Rican and Haitian women, the first version of the pill contained the hormones oestrogen and progestin, which were synthetically produced to mimic the body's natural hormones.

Take-up of the pill was fast. Between 1962 and 1969, the number of users rose from approximately 50,000 to one million.

In the USA, around 1.2 million women used the pill withing two years of its launch in 1960.

Now the number of users is around 11 million.

Worldwide, around 100 million women take the pill.

Health scares

Numbers began to dip in the early 1980s due to scares about its safety.

In the US, the number of users fell from around 10 million women to around 8.4 million in the early 1980s because of the concerns.

Research suggested possible links between pill use and breast cancer, strokes, heart attack and blood clots.

Other side effects include breast tenderness, depression and weight gain.

The pill has been dogged by controversy
Much investigation has been done into the more serious side effects area and, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, more studies have been done on the potential side effects of the pill than for any other medicine.

Some of the concerns were linked to the hormone levels in the pill.

These have now been lowered.

In the early years, the pill contained around 50 micrograms of oestrogen and it now contains around 30. Progestin levels have been reduced to a tenth of their original level.

The last health scare in the UK was in 1995 over thrombosis.

This caused a drop in usage and an increase in abortions and pregnancies.

The Family Planning Association (FPA) says this was "a blip".

Informed choice

Doctors now believe the pill is relatively safe for healthy women who do not smoke.

It has also been shown to protect against cancer of the ovaries and the womb lining and pelvic inflammatory disease, a major cause of infertility in women.

And it can make periods more regular, but it is not recommended for women over 35 who smoke heavily, obese women, those with high blood pressure, a history of heart disease or blood clots and other illnesses, such as breast cancer.

The FPA says information on the health risks should be fully available to women so they can make an informed choice.

"We are very concerned that women do not just take the pill regardless or stop taking it because of health scares," said a spokeswoman.

She added that women should give a full medical history to the doctor who is prescribing them the pill so that they get the right type for them.

Different types

The different types include a minipill which does not contain oestrogen.

It works by thickening the cervical mucus to prevent sperm reaching the egg.

It also prevents the uterus lining from thickening, making it difficult for a fertilised egg to become implanted in the womb.

The minipill is slightly less effective than the combined oral contraceptive pill, which is more commonly used, but it can reduce menstrual bleeding, cramps and the risk of some cancers and pelvic inflammatory disease.

It also lowers the risk of developing blood clots and is useful for women who are sensitive to extra oestrogen.

See also:

11 Aug 98 | Health
Blair orders pill death review
07 Jan 99 | Health
Thumbs up for pill
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