Potential Risks of Some Birth Control Pills

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It's the story of a devastating loss that may serve as a warning for other women. Women and their doctors may be glossing over the risks of birth control pills, dangers that are spelled out on each and every label.

It was a storybook beginning to a life together.

Dan and Nicole McKeon met at Villanova University and married in 1999.

She went on to pursue a phD in psychology; he became a computer programmer.

They had two sons, Justin and Brandon.

She was about to become a professor at Immaculata University, when one day, last August, disaster struck.

Dan recalls, "It was exactly a week after her 31st birthday. She got up for work and about 15 minutes later had lost complete control of the left side of her body."

As impossible as it seemed, Nicole was having a massive stroke.

Doctors worked to clear out as much of the clot as they could and gave her blood-thinning medications.

Then, one side of her brain began to hemorrhage, and this wife and mother of two young boys slipped away.

Dan tries to keep his emotions in check, as he says, "Its indescribable. I mean its like your whole life is just pulled from you...You know... To tell my kids that mom is not coming home..."

Dan says specialists told him the only risk factor Nicole had for a stroke was her birth control pills.

Nicole had recently begun taking Yasmin, one of dozens of "new generation" oral contraceptives containing low doses of estrogen.

That should, in theory, make them safer.

But the consumer group Public Citizen put Yasmin and some other low dose contraceptives on a "worst-pills" list largely because of a second ingredient - synthetic versions of the hormone progesterone that can carry health risks of their own.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, or Public Citizen puts it bluntly, "We're sacrificing every year hundreds of women who have blood clots, have to be hospitalized, and in some cases die."

Gynecologist Dr. Abigail Wolf of Jefferson University Hospital says that is an alarmist view given how many millions of women take oral contraceptives without a problem, and how many pregnancies they prevent.

Warning labels say the risk of heart and blood vessel problems goes up if a women is 35 and older, smokes cigarettes or has had previous blood clots.

Studies estimate that each year, about 15 to 30 in 100,000 Pill users will get a potentially dangerous clot.

"That doesn't mean it's not a real risk and, of course, we should let our patients know that there is a real risk, however small it may be," said Wolf.

Anna Evans thinks the reality of that risk gets lost in the marketing.

Yasmin's maker promotes the "feel good" factor of the pill; it can help lessen PMS, bloating and cramps.

It all sounded great to Anna.

Then one day this 38-year-old suffered a stroke while getting her two girls ready for school.

"When I went into the ER they could find no risk factors for such a thing and the only thing they said to me is you must never put artificial hormones in your body again, you must come off the birth control pill now," said McKeon, who wishes his wife Nicole had the chance to make that decision, and be here to watch her boys grow up.

Now, this grieving father wants other women to hear her story.

Dan said, " I know that she would not want her death to go in vain. She would want people to hear her story and she would want people to learn from it."

The maker of Yasmin says two recent studies done after this pill went on the market show it is just as safe as other contraceptives.

Bayer urges ANY woman who has a bad reaction to report it to the company and the FDA.

Every woman considering oral contraceptives should consult with her doctor to explore her personal risk factors.

And she should read all of the information that comes with the medication.

  • Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals 1-888-842-2937.

  • FDA Medwatch 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332)

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