Blast from the past keeps away unwanted pregnancies

When it comes to birth control, a blast from the past may be the next big thing.

Intrauterine devices, called IUDs, are a form of birth control gaining popularity among women because they are hassle-free, 99 percent effective against pregnancy and economically unbeatable.

IUDs consist of inch-long T-shaped pieces of soft flexible plastic that a physician inserts through the cervix into the uterus to prevent pregnancy. Once in place, the two brands of IUD contraception can remain effective for up to five years (Mirena) or ten years (ParaGard), but they also can be removed at any time.

IUDs are not new. The first generation of IUDs gained a bad reputation in the ’70s when products like the Dalkon Shield, a large IUD that looked like an overgrown spider, were thought to have caused pelvic infection and even death. The Dalkon Shield was completely taken off the market in 1974.

But according to the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health investigation, infection caused by early IUDs could be blamed on the multi-threaded fabric tail that easily harbored bacteria. The “tail” allows one to check to make sure the IUD is still in place. Today’s IUDs use a single plastic string and don’t have names that sound like their users are harboring a Death Star in utero.

A report in the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology released in 2005 found that infection risks among today’s IUDs are less than one in 1,000, which puts the infection rates at a level comparable to that of people wearing contact lenses.

Both of the two types of IUDs currently on the market today work similarly to each other. ParaGard, made by Barr Pharmaceuticals, releases copper ions that stop sperm from reaching the egg and also prevent an egg from attaching in the uterus. Mirena, made by Berlex, releases levonorgestrol, which immobilizes sperm by thickening the cervical mucous. The hormone also works to thin the lining of the uterus so that if an egg is fertilized, it cannot attach itself. Both products have a pregnancy rate of less than one percent. Neither product protects users from sexually transmitted diseases or AIDS.

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Samantha Speaks, Director of Patient Services at Anchorage’s Planned Parenthood of Alaska, said demand for IUDs has risen recently.

“We are having more and more clients requesting more information, and actually the number of people getting IUDs in the last couple years has increased,” Speaks said.

Betty Bang, a family nurse practitioner at UAA’s Student Health and Counseling Center, said that an IUD insertion at UAA will cost about $500, which she said she thinks is a large chunk of change for a college student.

“They are a wonderful investment if people have the money up front,” Bang said. “If someone doesn’t have a lot of money, they probably aren’t going to have it put in.” When the cost is calculated over time, $500 over the course of five or 10 years, that comes to less than $5 or $10 a month.

Planned Parenthood charges $450 with a $200 insertion cost. IUDs are covered by many health insurance companies as well as Alaska Medicaid. The actual insertion time is around a half-hour, and Speaks said the process is relatively painless.

Like any medical miracle, IUDs are not without their side effects. ParaGard’s Web site states that the most common side effects are heavier and longer periods after the first couple months of use.

ParaGard’s copper can irritate the uterine lining, potentially making cramping and bleeding worse. Speaks said that the side effects usually do go away. She said that women who use ParaGard are those who don’t believe in introducing outside hormones in to their bodies.

Speaks said that Mirena can initially cause a prolonged period. Mirena’s Web site boasts that its side effects include less abdominal pain and a lighter period. However, side effects from the levonorgestrol are comparable to oral birth control pills with similar hormones.

But for people who can’t take birth control pills because of problems such as an increased potential for breast cancer, problems with blood clots or worsened migraine headaches, Bang said an IUD would be a very good option.

“A good candidate is someone who is looking for a long-term contraceptive method,” Speaks said. “(People) who are in a monogamous relationship, not necessarily married, but monogamous.”