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Last Updated: Friday, 28 May, 2004, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
Pill surge linked to holidays
By Pat Hagan

Amberlee Ohashi
'I was in a terrible state'
A romantic break in the country last August bank holiday went horribly wrong for Amberlee Ohashi when a condom split and she lay awake the whole night worrying she might become pregnant.

In the end, the 33-year-old management accountant was so distraught she and her boyfriend drove back to London a day early and waited nearly four hours in casualty to see a doctor, who prescribed emergency contraception.

Only later did Amberlee realise that she could have bought the same pills - which work for up to 72 hours after sexual intercourse - from almost any high street pharmacy.

Campaigners say cases like Amberlee's are now the exception rather than the rule since emergency contraception - also known as the morning after pill - was made available over the counter two years ago.

Generally speaking in the last couple of years knowledge about emergency contraception has improved immeasurably
Toni Belfield, Family Planning Association
They believe women are getting the message that they need not wait to see their GP before getting hold of the pill in an emergency.

As a result, the initiative to make the drug more freely available is reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancies, they claim.

"I'm not on the Pill and this had never happened before, so I was really upset and spent the whole night lying awake worrying about it," says Amberlee.

"I was in a terrible state and it ruined the whole weekend. We weren't supposed to leave until late on the Monday evening but I was so upset and worried we ended up leaving first thing in the morning and driving back to London.

"I didn't realise that you don't need a prescription for it and I could have bought it in any pharmacy."

Better knowledge

Pharmacists are bracing themselves for a surge in demand following the bank-holiday this weekend.

Data gathered by drug firm Schering Health, which makes the morning after pill Levonelle, show usage jumps by up to 30% after May bank-holidays, 60% in the wake of the August bank-holiday and an astonishing 107% in the days immediately after last Christmas and New Year.

"Generally speaking in the last couple of years knowledge about emergency contraception has improved immeasurably," says Toni Belfield, director of information at the Family Planning Association.

"Women now know there's something there for them. They are becoming aware that they can get it at a pharmacy and figures show around 33% of those using emergency contraception now get it from a pharmacist."

Ms Belfield believes one area that still needs to be improved is the understanding that the hormonal drug Levonelle can be used up to 72 hours after sexual intercourse.

But there are some concerns that this greater public awareness is confined to those social groups who least need educating about emergency contraception.

Andrew McCoig, a pharmacist in Croydon, south London, believes the cost of buying the pill over the counter excludes those who need it most - young sexually active women from deprived backgrounds.

"At 24 a time, it's a fairly big price to pay. The women who are buying it are not youngsters, yet we have one of the worst teenage pregnancy records in Europe."

Under a local initiative, he and other pharmacists are allowed to give the drug free to anyone under 21 who requests it. But he fears many in this age group are still unaware they need not go to the family GP.

"The initiative addresses the problem but it's getting that message across to women who find themselves in that situation - some of them are just children."

Infections on the rise

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, however, accuses the government of not being honest about exactly how the morning after pill works. It also believes its wider use is directly linked to the sharp rise in sexually transmitted diseases.

Spokesman John Smeaton said: "It's not made absolutely clear that we are talking about an abortion-inducing drug, one that prevents the embryo from implanting in the lining of the womb.

"There has also been a massive rise in sexually transmitted infections in those areas where emergency contraception and other birth control drugs have been promoted."

Mr McCoig stressed that Levonelle does not work if a woman is already pregnant.

Morning after pill 'in advance'
09 Feb 04  |  Health
Morning after pill dose changed
01 Dec 03  |  Health

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