Six Small Capsule Implants May Change the Way the World Conceives of Birth Control

updated 03/18/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/18/1985 01:00AM

News of a modern contraceptive that may revolutionize birth control practices around the world was announced in New York last month by Dr. Wayne Bardin, director of the nonprofit Population Council's Center for Biomedical Research. The new device, called the NORPLANT system, is more convenient, more effective and, claims Bardin, probably safer than the Pill. And good news for the occasionally forgetful users of the Pill: The contraceptive is effective for five years—and reversible with a minor surgical procedure.

The new device had its origin in the discovery that birth control steroids could be diffused through silicone rubber. Scientists experimented with various drugs and dosages for seven years before starting field trials in 1974. Their final product has now been called safe and effective by the World Health Organization, and is already in use in Finland and Sweden. It consists of six flexible capsules made of silicone rubber that are implanted just under the skin on the inside of a woman's upper arm. The simple operation is painless, and the capsules, once in place, cannot be seen beneath the skin. The capsules gradually release small quantities of a contraceptive steroid called levonorgestrel. The chemical does not contain estrogen, which is used in most oral contraceptives, and thus avoids side effects, such as headache, nausea and blood clotting, often associated with the Pill. The implant prevents pregnancy by inhibiting ovulation and thickening cervical mucus and, in this way, blocks the passage of sperm.

Developed over the past 19 years by the Center for Biomedical Research, the NORPLANT system has been tested by more than 14,000 women in 14 countries since 1974. According to Bardin, the implant "will fail less often than any other form of birth control except sterilization." Still the most prevalent method in the world, sterilization fails only once in every 1,000 cases. The implant, says Bardin, may fail three times in 1,000, while birth control pills fail "from 30 to 50 times per 1,000." The only women who cannot use the implant, says Bardin, are those suffering from liver disease, abnormal uterine bleeding or breast cancer.

Application for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be made within months, and the implant—currently manufactured in Finland—is expected to go on sale in the U.S. within three to five years. Probable cost: $30 to $60. Population Council President George Zeidenstein calls the implant "the most important new contraceptive system since the Pill," and the WHO report, he predicts, will prove "a giant step toward worldwide acceptance and availability."

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