Birth control pills and traditional latex condoms have been among the most popular and effective methods of contraception for decades. But innovators think it’s time for an upgrade — not only to increase protection, but also to establish safe sex as a basic human right.
Health organisations and forward-thinking companies are making breakthroughs in the field of contraception, working to develop new products such as hormone-releasing microchips, radically redesigned condoms and even low-cost male birth control injections that could last up to 15 years.
“We need new contraceptive options that will fill gaps in the method mix, and increase choices for women,” says Dr. Laneta Dorflinger, distinguished scientist and director of contraceptive technology innovation at FHI 360 (formerly Family Health International). “A sizable percentage of women who have an unmet need for contraception do not use a method due to side effects — real or perceived. New innovations … could have a substantial impact.”
That especially includes the developing world. An estimated 222 million women in developing countries would like to prevent childbearing, but are not using any method of contraception, according to the World Health Organization. Accessible and affordable birth control methods can help prevent both unwanted pregnancy and, depending on the method, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Contraception is important in developed nations, too, of course. There are 62 million women in the United States in their childbearing years (between the ages of 15 and 44), according to the Guttmacher Institute. Of those women who have had sexual intercourse, more than 99% have used at least one contraceptive method. The most popular method is the pill.
Dorflinger says there has been limited investment in contraceptive research and development in recent decades, but organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds FHI 360’s Contraceptive Technology Innovation initiative, have started to change that. FHI 360, specifically, is currently working on a new injectable contraceptive that could last for six months, a biodegradable implant and assessing a subcutaneous method to deliver injectable contraceptives that has been developed by PATH, called Sayana Press.
Beyond pills, patches and IUDs, here are six birth control methods that could revolutionise family planning.
MicroCHIPS, a Massachusetts-based startup formed by MIT researchers, is developing a remote-controlled, implanted microchip that can deliver drugs beneath your skin – including hormonal birth control. It’s designed to last up to 16 years, and can be controlled by wirelessly opening and closing a reservoir that releases the hormone levonorgestrel over a course of 30 days.
Scientists at MIT developed the tech behind the device, and licensed it to MicroCHIPS. Its potential is exciting for anyone, but it could be an especially viable option for women in developing nations with limited access to affordable contraception.
In March 2013, the Gates Foundation offered $100,000 to any innovator who could introduce “the next generation of condom” to the world. It was a radical request, in part because it publicly acknowledged a universal lack of incentive to use the traditional male condom – including the widely held belief that it reduces sensation.
One of the submissions to receive early praise in the challenge came from California-based company Origami Condoms, which redesigned the prophylactic so the wearer feels it even more. However, the inside of the condom mimics natural sensation and, as a result, is designed to increase pleasure. The condom is also non-rolled, and therefore easier to apply.
It isn’t available commercially yet, but pending regulatory approvals, the Origami Male Condom is expected to reach the market in early 2015.
Origami Condoms has also designed a female condom and an anal condom, both expected in late 2015.
3. L. Condoms
L. is trying to reinvent the traditional condom from the start, by changing the way we manufacture and market it. The B corp’s condoms are made from sustainably tapped, locally sourced, biodegradable latex – without irritating additives often associated with typical latex – and they’re packaged in discreet, 100% recycled boxes.
For every condom sold, one is donated to a developing country battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic – making L. kind of like the TOMS of safe sex.
Photojournalist Talia Frenkel founded the company after documenting human rights issues for the United Nations and other NGOs. Witnessing the epidemic firsthand, she committed to creating L. to help ensure safe sex as a human right.
Reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance (RISUG), commonly known by its more recent, (hopefully soon) commercial version, Vasalgel, is a revolutionary type of birth control. Why? It’s a form of male birth control, reducing the onus on women to take care of contraception before sex. All it takes is one shot of polymer, or gel, into the vas deferens, creating a semi-solid plug that blocks sperm in a 15-minute procedure.
Not only that, it’s 100% effective, low-cost, reversible, and can last between 10 and 15 years.
The only issue – it’s taking a while to hit the market. Many reports cite money as its primary obstacle; big pharma probably isn’t interested in an inexpensive contraceptive intended to be used only once.
Nevertheless, the Parsemus Foundation (the NGO behind Vasalgel) is testing the polymer with baboons as of Sept. 4, 2014, and plans to start clinical trials in humans in 2015.
The Sino-implant (II) is an affordable, subdermal implant made of two thin, flexible rods containing levonorgestrel (the same hormone in the microchip reservoir, mentioned above). Hormonal contraceptive implants aren’t new – they were introduced more than 30 years ago – but the Sino-implant (II) is one of the latest iterations designed for “resource-limited settings,” according to FHI360, ideal for women in developing countries.
Dorflinger says the implant has been registered in more than 20 countries, with more than 1 million units. While other implants cost $20 or more per unit as late as 2010, the Sino-implant (II) is priced at $8 per unit (and other implant providers have since made their prices more comparable).
6. Caya contoured diaphragm (formerly SILCS)
Diaphragms are a reusable, affordable form of birth control, but according to global health nonprofit PATH, they’re rarely included in family planning programs, despite a high demand for non-hormonal contraception.
Many attribute the diaphragm’s unpopularity to discomfort and difficulty in applying it. However, the Caya-brand contoured diaphragm, previously called the SILCS diaphragm during design and testing stages, improves those drawbacks. Developed by PATH, CONRAD and other partners, the redesigned, single-size diaphragm (pictured above) ensures increased comfort and ease of use.
It can also aid in the delivery of gels that can prevent HIV and STIs, potentially making the diaphragm the “first true” multipurpose prevention technology (MPT), according to USAID’s Judy Manning.