One of the themes of Brian Gail’s novel, Fatherless, was the damage done by oral contraceptives to the health of the women who take them. In the novel, a pharmaceutical executive becomes aware of the link and worries about an eventual class-action lawsuit and even the potential for criminal investigations. For those who have paid attention, the side effects of oral contraceptives should be serious enough to cause any woman to resist taking the drugs, and yet the population at large seems either ignorant or remarkably apathetic about the dangers.
I was a little surprised last week, when a story on the health risks of contraceptives aired on, of all places, National Public Radio. The story, by NPR’s Richard Knox, focused primarily on problems associated with Yaz, an oral contraceptive produced by Bayer Healthcare.
First, Yaz was marketed as being more than just an oral contraceptive. Commercials for Yaz suggested that the drug, in addition to acting as a contraceptive, would also help to improve other symptoms like moodiness, fatigue, headaches, and acne. The marketing campaign worked – women (and teenage girls) specifically requested Yaz from their doctors. However, the marketing claims were misleading, and the FDA ordered Bayer to run a corrective commercial.
All oral contraceptives have accompanying health risks, but those risks are even greater with especially strong drugs like Yaz. One 16-year-old user, profiled by Mr. Knox, suffered a blood clot in her leg that resulted in a pulmonary embolism. After being misdiagnosed by one doctor, another doctor noted the patient’s blue leg and immediately diagnosed the blood clot and the connection to birth control pills. That, in and of itself, says something about the frequency of serious side effects to contraceptive drugs. Richard Knox notes, “The link between birth control pills and blood clots isn’t new. It’s been known for decades. Every year a few thousand women suffer clots because they’re on the pill. But it’s possible that Yaz and Yasmin, a similar pill, carry a higher risk of clotting.” The increase in risk has been estimated to be somewhere between 64 and 100 percent. In other words, if a given number of Yaz users resulted in 1000 blood clots, an equal number of users of the “safer” oral contraceptives would still result in 500 to 610 blood clots.
In Fatherless, Joe Delgado worried about a class action lawsuit. According to NPR’s Knox, there are now 2700 women suing Bayer over Yaz. Even so, Bayer is going to market with another new contraceptive, in spite of the potential health risks. They are, no doubt, confident that women will buy the new alternative. Contraceptives are big business – NPR reports that just last year, Bayer earned $800 million through sales of Yaz. I can’t help but wonder whether somebody at Bayer has already calculatied how many blood clot victims can be compensated before that kind of revenue ceases to generate a profit?