General

Sharing the contraception responsibility

“I felt like I had no control over my emotions. It was like a rollercoaster every day. But then it started to get really bad and to the point where I was like, ‘okay something’s not right

For Briana Walker, the situation eventually worsened to the point where she had to attend hospital in a suicidal state.

Mental health problems are among the side-effects women may experience when taking the oral contraceptive pill.

Walker says, at 17-years-of-age, the only contraception she knew about was the pill and it was the norm to go on it. Unless of course, pregnancy was planned.

“There’s no consideration of what might be best for you. It’s just like you’re a teenage girl, like it’s time to go on the pill now,” she says.

But, what about the male? Men play an equal part in pregnancy. And if they don’t want to have a baby or are not fit to have a baby, isn’t it in their best interest to take responsibility for contraception too?

New research could be overcoming the limitations of male birth control; the non-reversal vasectomy, withdrawal method and the surprisingly high-risk condom method whose failure rate is 13 per cent globally. Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences researchers are soon to release a world-first non-hormonal male contraception pill.

Lead researcher Dr Sab Ventura says instead of disrupting male fertility with hormones, the pill will work like blood pressure medication by stopping the movement of sperm during ejaculation.

“You need to understand that nothing will move in the body without the brain telling it to,” Dr Ventura says. “We’re trying to interrupt the message from the brain to that particular muscle which moves sperm before ejaculation, and we’re doing that by disrupting the proteins that receive the message from the brain to make that muscle contract and move sperm along.

“So, we’ve done that genetically in mice and shown that it works. It does make male mice infertile. Now we’re in the process of making some chemicals or medicines that will do the same thing.”

The pill should be ready to purchase in the next five to 10 years, depending on the amount of funding provided to keep the research going.

Ventura says the more money, the faster the research and the quicker the male pill will be out on the market.

Ventura believes young men in their late teens and early twenties will be the most receptive towards the proposed daily pill which is said to have zero side effects. “And, if there’s a woman, if she’s not coping well with the hormonal disruption that she gets with her oral contraceptive, then the male can sort of take control and use it as a contraceptive,” he says.

Walker hates not using contraception. With no peace of mind and sense of security, she wants nothing more than to prevent pregnancy. But, the mental health ward; a place where she felt isolated, scared and exhausted, is the last place she says any girl wants to be.

And there is a long list of other potential side-effects including vomiting, mood changes, acne, migraines, pelvic pain and weight gain.

“Guys, they have no idea, they don’t know what it means to be on the female pill,” Walker says. “They just think you take a pill and it stops your period. So of course, they’re not going to know what it puts your body through and I think if they did know, they’d definitely not be in favour of it.”

Ventura says hopefully after people know the male pill is non-hormonal and will not affect hormones as previous attempts have done, this will persuade people to use it.

“It might not be ours but I think when one does come on the market, if people start taking it, I think that’ll generate a lot more interest. And, a few other different types might come up until we come up with something that’s, you know, the best one for everybody,” he says.

But can a woman trust a man with the pill?

Dr Ventura says there has been a lot of social science research suggesting women would trust their partners to take a male contraceptive if there was one available.

“So, I think that attitude’s changing as well,” Dr Ventura says.

Dr Shannon Dantoc from Palin Street Family Practice WA says although the new pill will be a breakthrough for couples and single men, it won’t however protect them against sexually transmitted diseases. She says one in four people under the age of 24 have chlamydia in WA and they don’t know about it.

The pill research is being funded by the Male Contraception Initiative, a non-profit organisation whose main aim is to stimulate the development of safe and effective contraceptives for men.

Male Contraceptive Initiative director of operations and programs Logan Nickels says over the past 50 years, many research projects have been terminated for safety reasons and efficacy due to it being a biologically complex field.

“The standard is high for drug development, and a male contraceptive needs to be just as effective as a female contraceptive to be considered a success,” Nickels says. “There’s reason to be hopeful though – multiple hormonal contraceptives for men are in early clinical trials right now, and innovative non-hormonal solutions, some of which are funded by MCI, are coming down the pipeline as well.”

In regard to the past research, Ventura says it defeats the purpose to have a pill which will make men infertile but meanwhile changing their behaviours, attitudes and male characteristics.

“Men that took them weren’t happy with what was happening to them, to their bodies and to their behaviours, so they just didn’t want to take them,” he says. “And yeah, I mean it would be similar sorts of effects to what women get but I don’t know, women just seem to be able to tolerate changes to their bodies a bit better than men, or men seem to be not very good at it at all. So that’s why we’ve gone with a non-hormonal approach which will avoid a lot of those problems and hopefully make it tolerable for men.”

There are 80 million unintended pregnancies and an estimated 40-50 million abortions each year worldwide. WA has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the country.

“Prevention is better than cure. If we can prevent every unwanted pregnancy, I think society itself would be in a better position,” Dantoc says.

Dantoc says sex isn’t something people should take lightly. “I have quite a lot of people that come and I say, ‘okay what sort of contraception are you on? Oh, I’m on, I’m using condoms. Okay, so do you use them every time? Oh yeah pretty much. Pretty much? So, there’s sometimes that you don’t? Oh sometimes we use the withdrawal method.’ Now oh my goodness, you either are or you aren’t. If you’re not one time then that’s not safe and you’re going to end up pregnant,” she says.

“If you want effective contraception, you actually need to be wearing the condom every single time. You can’t skip. Even with the oral contraceptive pill. Perfect use is 99.7 per cent effective. But unfortunately, typical use is approximately only 92 per cent effective.”

The World Health Organisation found even if every couple used contraception perfectly every time they had sex, there would still be six million unplanned pregnancies each year compared to the 80 million unintended pregnancies recorded each year.

Dr Dantoc says the serious side of sex and its consequences just isn’t something that gets talked about. “You can’t force anyone to have a baby when they don’t want to. Alternatively, you can’t force anyone to have an abortion when they don’t want to,” she says.

“And even if say there is an unwanted pregnancy and say the woman chooses not to keep it and go ahead with the termination again, you know that can have ramifications in terms of her emotional and psychological health and the male doesn’t have to do any of that.”

Walker says she thinks men just don’t see contraception and the sacrifice it may entail as something they should be held responsible for.

“Who does it come down to? It’s bullshit. It makes me so mad. Like I said, it’s a two-person thing and I think there’s the perception because we’re the females and we’re the ones who can carry children and be pregnant and give birth, that it’s in our domain, like it’s our thing to worry about,” she says.

Let’s think of it this way. If a woman says she’s on the pill, how can a man prove that? How can he see if that’s true or not?

Dantoc says it’s not just about a shared responsibility but by taking this new non-hormonal contraceptive pill, both men and women can take responsibility for their own health without relying on the other person. “Hopefully what happens is, the female is on the pill and the male is on the pill as well, so you are getting double of that protection.”