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The BBC's Richard Hannaford
"The risks are still very low"
 real 28k

Friday, 16 June, 2000, 01:43 GMT 02:43 UK
Pill fears played down
the pill
The pill slightly increases the risk of blood clots
The health risks of taking so-called "third generation" contraceptive pills could be higher than previously thought, according to new research.

But they are still tiny compared to the health risks of an unwanted pregnancy say experts, who have urged women not to stop taking their pills.

The third generation pills were at the centre of a scare in 1995 when they were found to increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis - dangerous clots which form within blood vessels.

If they are pushed up into and lodge within the lung, this can cause a fatal pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung).

The government advised that the pills should not be used as a first choice of oral contraception.

Pregnancy carries more of a health risk than taking the pill
However, the 1995 scare was blamed for causing a 9% rise in abortions in the UK, exposing women to far more risk.

The government's expert body then executed a u-turn, publishing a review which found "no new safety concerns".

However, the new research, conducted in New Zealand where third generation pills are widely used, found that the risk of fatal pulmonary embolism was significantly increased.

The New Zealand researchers found that Pill users were 9.6 times more likely to develop a fatal pulmonary embolism than those not taking the contraceptive.

Women taking third generation pills containing desogestrel or gestodene were 14 times more likely to develop pulmonary embolisms.

Handful of cases

However, in eight years, they still found only a handful of cases among younger women.

And since the initial risk was tiny, even the significant rise they reported leaves a low overall risk to women taking the Pill.

However the researchers say that doctors should be more aware of the potential risk among young women taking the third generation pills so they can spot symptoms early.

Toni Belfield, from the Family Planning Association said that advice to women should not be altered on the basis of the new research.

She said: "Whilst welcoming any new information, this small New Zealand study adds to but does not change our current understanding of the risks associated with the Pill.

"Research has shown for some time that using combined oral contraceptives can increase a woman's risk of thromoembolism (blood clot) and ultimately the risk of having a pulmonary embolism.

"That risk is slightly higher in women taking third generation pills."

She added: "However the risk of blood clots are still greater where a woman becomes pregnant and goes to term."

She said that women should be told about the risks, but stressed that the Pill remained a highly effective and safe form of contraception.

"Women should not be alarmed by this finding and should not stop taking their Pill," she said.

The Department of Health said the new research was useful but "does not provide cause for concern about (the Pill's) safety".

A spokesman said: "Overall, all the evidence now available still indicates that the risk of dying from thrombosis whilst taking the Pill is very low and much less than the risk of dying from the complications of pregnancy.

"The new evidence needs to be evaluated further but does not provide a basis for concern about the safety of the Pill."

The research was published in the Lancet medical journal.

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See also:

07 Apr 99 | Health
U-turn over pill scare
07 Jan 99 | Health
Thumbs up for pill
07 Jan 99 | Health
A short history of the pill
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