Sometimes I get the feeling that hardly anyone under 50 reads some of these posts. In that sense, talking about birth control might seem sort of, well, theoretical for this crowd. (Really important back in the day, less so now, hmm?)
But that’s what hit me about a couple of things I ran across recently: where are the big new developments, the “finally!” breakthroughs in something so basic and important in so many lives, all around the world?
It seems to me the last game-shifter was the oral contraceptive pill. It was never perfect. Even modern versions still present health complications and ‘the pill’ as a method of birth control is now over 50 years old. (Seriously? No major breakthroughs since 1960? That’s nuts.)
One recent article sounded potentially promising in the “do it naturally” department. According to Maclean’s Magazine, researchers are exploring the properties of curcumin – a chemical component of turmeric, which gives that spice its characteristic bright saffron color.
Dr. Rajesh Naz, (“professor and vice-chair in the department of obstetrics and gynecology as well as microbiology, immunology and cell biology at West Virginia University, in Morgantown”) grew up in India where turmeric is well-known and much consumed. Compounds found in turmeric inhibit fast-growing cells (think cancer and sperm). According to Macleans:
He and his team have conducted various trials of curcumin as a contraceptive. In vitro, they added it to both human and mouse sperm. Within minutes, curcumin had the effect of crippling the sperm, rendering sperm cells unable to swim. Curcumin also had the effect of disabling sperm’s ability to fertilize an egg. In the lab experiments, none of the human or mouse eggs that were incubated with curcumin were successfully fertilized. Without curcumin, about 75 per cent of the eggs were fertilized.
Yeah, yeah. Mice. In vitro. Big whoop. What about where it counts? Well, there’s more work ahead, but Naz is hopeful:
Ultimately, if it works in humans as well as he thinks, a vaginal curcumin suppository used once a month should be all a woman needs for full contraception. Not only that, but Naz believes it will also help stop sexually transmitted diseases from spreading between partners. “It may be better than a condom,” he says. His lab has found that the same dose of curcumin that inhibits sperm also curtails the growth of bacteria, though these results aren’t published yet.
Speaking of condoms – anything new there? They are tried, they are true, sort of. (The CDC says “Male condoms are 82–98% effective at preventing pregnancy”). For anyone who’d really rather not get pregnant that 82% side of the range looks a tad terrifying. For that (and other reasons) condoms can be hard to love.
Well, as reported in Slate and other media coverage, no less than Bill Gates is trying to push progress in that area too.
Bill Gates’ latest charitable contribution in the field of public health: $100,000 to the inventor of a condom that actually feels good. Grand Challenges in Global Health, a research foundation established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is offering the grant money for the best “testable hypothesis” for “the next generation condom,” one that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure.” The goal is to eliminate one of the major barriers to condom use: “From the male perspective,” the call for entries says, “condoms decrease pleasure as compared to no condom, creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable.”
That challenge and its parameters are explained here.
I say bully for Bill and Melinda Gates! Living up to their foundation’s stated goal “We believe every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”
Speaking from the peanut gallery, maybe that prize should be even bigger? Sure, $100,000 is a nice start. But isn’t this important enough to make it really exciting? Like, (Dr. Evil voice and pinkie gesture) “one MILLION dollars!”?
Why does this picture seems relatively unchanged across a half century? Just take the old line about sex, drugs and rock & roll and look at what’s happened to music. OK, artists need to get paid and that’s a problem. But a whole record library on a tiny device! Distribution, access, storgage – it’s a revolutionary change.
Drugs have not stayed static either, just look at products for erectile disfunction, for example. (Men being able to have even more sex did not strike me as humanity’s most important pharmaceutical gap. But, of course, money and demand are what makes new drugs appear.)
And the first one in that troika? Sex? The biggest revolution in our lifetime there was AIDS, which only served to make condoms more important. Where’s the kind of advancement that music and drugs got?
I often conclude posts by asking “and how do you handle this in your own life?” Not going there this time!
I will ask, though, why has there been such slow progress on developing safe, convenient, affordable birth control?
Is the problem that hard? Or has it simply not been given the right amount of attention?
I hope someone wins that Gates prize for the next generation condom. And other advancements come along too.