New Year's passion spikes rise in emergency contraception

Forget the sequined bag and sky-high heels. In certain circles, the hottest New Year’s accessory appears to be a dose of emergency contraception.

The dawn of the new year typically sees a sharp spike in requests for pills that can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, say researchers, drugmakers and health advocates.

“With the long holiday weekend, there are breaks in technique, people are not getting to the pharmacy and there’s a lot of bad judgment,” speculated Dr. Edward S. Linn, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Cook County Health and Hospital System in Chicago.

Queries to the website — "Your website for the 'Morning After'" — run by Princeton University, climb in the first few days of January, according to James Trussell, the professor of economics and public affairs who maintains the site. Visitors can find detailed background on emergency contraception options, including recipes for do-it-yourself treatments using high doses of common birth control pills.

Trussell says there's been no formal research to verify an increase in use around New Year's Eve, or similar claims that demand rises near Valentine's Day, for that matter.

But e-mails flood the website of the maker of Plan B One-Step, the latest incarnation of Plan B, the so-called “morning after pill,” at least according to the manufacturer.

Officials at Teva Women's Health refused to say exactly how many patients buy the drug in early January compared with other times, but spokeswoman Allison Pishko swears it’s a lot. That’s especially true since the drug became available without prescription to people 17 and older in 2006.

The rumored New Year’s spike in emergency contraception — or EC —  helped spur the National Institute for Reproductive Health to create an awareness campaign. Last year’s event, for instance, was called “Don’t Drop the Ball on New Year’s Eve” and focused on urging young women to think ahead about hooking up on Dec. 31.

“We know that advance provision is a great idea,” said Aileen Gleizer, coordinator of the agency’s Back Up Your Birth Control campaign.

Half of pregnancies unintended
In the U.S., about half of the more than 6 million pregnancies that occur each year are unintended and more than 1.2 million end in induced abortion, according to government figures.

For the first time this year, New Year’s revelers have three ways to prevent pregnancy after the fact. The prescription-only drug ella was released in the U.S. Dec. 1 after gaining Food and Drug Administration approval last summer. Ella, produced by Paris-based Laboratoire HRA Pharma, works by blocking the hormone progesterone, either stopping or delaying ovulation. It is effective up to 120 hours, or five days after unprotected sex.

Ella joins the one-dose Plan B One-Step and the two-pill drug known as Next Choice, manufactured by Watson Laboratories Inc. Both rely on high doses of a synthetic progesterone, called levonorgestrel, to prevent ovulation. They’re effective for 72 hours after unprotected sex and perhaps longer, though the effectiveness diminishes quickly.

Requests for emergency contraception come mainly from younger women ages 18 to 29, who often don’t use birth control reliably, and from older women in their 40s who didn’t think they had to, Linn said.

Their situations might be different, but their reasons for needing emergency contraception are the same, notes Linn. He applauds the wider number of available drugs, but believes that stringent prescription requirements stifle access for women and their partners.

“In general, the more options the better,” Linn said, adding: “Let’s not get pregnant in 2011.”