Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Where We Hear From the NY Post And We Are Left Wondering What It "All" Means...Er, "Means"

After noticing several factual inaccuracies about Plan B in a NY Post op-ed, I emailed the columnist:

Ms. Wisse Schachter,

I'm contacting you to alert you to a number of factual mistakes in your op-ed. Briefly:

--Plan B is the "emergency contraception pill[s]", or the "postcoital pill[s]", not the "morning-after pill". [That's an incorrect and misleading term.]

--Plan B is not a pill, it's two pills. Two 0.75 mg levonorgestrel pills, to be exact. [Essential information in view of the new dosage recommendations.]

--Plan B is not basically a double dose of the regular birth-control pill. [Even without defining "regular birth-control pill", Plan B is neither a double dose of the regular progestin-only pill, nor of the EC regimen combination one.]

--Plan B is not associated with "cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attack and strokes." (For that matter, neither are the COC EC regimens.) [In fact, Plan B is the preferred EC method for patients with a history of blood clots or stroke.]

(Full post here.)

Thank you for your time.

ema


Today, Ms. Schachter emails back:

Dear Ema,

Thank you for your message and for taking the time to read and respond to my op-ed.

The side effects listed in my piece are those commonly associated with taking birth control, as I make perfectly clear.

It would have been nice had taken as much time reading the column as you did "rebutting" it.

Regards,
Abby Schachter


First, I appreciate the response.

Second, allow me to address this:

It would have been nice had taken as much time reading the column as you did "rebutting" it.


People, as a rule, when emailing me, assume I'm dense and just say what you mean. Not having to divine intent saves me a lot of time.

I'm not sure, but here's what I think Ms. Schachter's admonition means--"I write a piece focused on the political and social implications of OTC availability of Plan B, and you 1) don't address those issues at all, and/or 2) refute them [not] by pointing out, and correcting, the factual mistakes about Plan B." Correct and incorrect at the same time.

Correct, because all I did was address the factual mistakes about Plan B--what it is, it's side effects, etc. My position (and concern) is that, unless we know the basics about a drug, we cannot have an informed discussion about the politics surrounding it.

Incorrect, because, by pointing out the mistakes about Plan B, I was not rebutting anything; I wasn't presenting any opposing evidence to Ms. Schachter's opinions. The facts about Plan B, like its progestin-only content, are not up for debate. It's not a "she said", "she said" situation. We don't each get a few minutes to make our case. Plan B's composition, or side effects for that matter, are a given, independent of anyone's argument/counterargument [you know, the "science" part].

Last, but not least, we have this:

The side effects listed in my piece are those commonly associated with taking birth control, as I make perfectly clear.


Here's the thing [yes, I know, I'm watching way too much Monk]: 1) the side effects listed in the piece are not those commonly associated with taking birth control, and 2) there's nothing even remotely clear [not to mention correct] about Plan B's side effects in the piece.

There are seven groups of birth control, and over eighty individual methods:

1. Hormonal Group

-Combination Pill

-Progestin-only Pill

-Skin Patch

-Vaginal Ring

-Implants

-Shots

-[Hormone-releasing IUDs]

2. Nonsteroidal Pill Group

-Centchroman

3. Intrauterine Device Group

-Older IUDs

-Frame IUDs

-Frameless IUDs

-[Hormone-releasing IUDs]

4. Barrier and Spermicide Group

-Condom (male, female, and unisex)

-Diaphragm

-Cervical Cap

-Ov├Ęs Cap

-FemCap

-Lea contraceptive

[Good pics here.]

-Sponges

-Spermicides

5. Natural Family Planning Group

-Continuous Abstinence

-Outercourse

-Sexual techniques

-Breastfeeding

-Fertility Awareness

6. Sterilization Group

-Male

-Female

7. Emergency Contraception Group

-Combination Pill

-Progestin-only Pill

-Antiprogesterone Pill

-Progesterone production blocker Pill

-IUD

These are the side effects listed in the op-ed:

...mild, such as dizziness, weight gain and irregular periods. ... more serious, if rare - cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attack and strokes.


Ms. Schachter says these are the side effects (emphasis mine) commonly associated with taking birth control. Since we're talking about common side effects, everything after rare (cardiovascular dz, HTN, blood clots, heart attack and strokes) is out.

So we're left with dizziness, weight gain and irregular periods. According to Ms. Schachter, these are the side effects commonly associated with taking birth control. Really? When's the last time your partner's condom use caused you to gain weight?

Okay, I'm being facetious, but you get the point. There's no such thing as side effects ... commonly associated with taking birth control. That's because a method's side effects depend on group, mode of action, dosage, route of administration, risk factors, etc..

Even if Ms. Schachter was only referring to the Hormonal Group when listing the side effects, it's still essential to be accurate.

Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attack and strokes are not common side effects of methods in the hormonal birth control group. They are rare effects of some of the methods--the combination (estrogen + progestin) ones--in this group. [To give you an idea ...even deaths due to rare events, such as accidents or homicides, are much more common than deaths due to OC-related adverse events.*]

Moreover, the Hormonal Group and the EC Group are not one and the same. The side effects associated with combination methods in the Hormonal Group differ from those associated with combination methods in the EC Group. Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attack and strokes are not side effects--rare or otherwise--associated with combination (estrogen + progestin) EC regimens. [From my previous post: No deaths or serious complications have been causally linked to emergency contraception.]

Last, but not least, Plan B is a PROGESTIN-ONLY method. Its side effects differ from the combination (estrogen + progestin) methods in the EC Group.

Which brings us to Ms. Schachter's assertion that she made it perfectly clear in her piece that the side effects she lists are commonly associated with (?hormonal/?estrogen-progestin) birth control, in general, not Plan B. I disagree, and here's why.

In a piece

...titled 'PLAN B': What Science Can't Tell Us...

...containing the statement But it plainly is all about Plan B...

...focused on issues surrounding the approval of OTC sales of Plan B...

...stating that OTC approval of Plan B is troubling because women could get it without the benefit of a doctor's warning about side effects...

Well, approval raises a host of troubling questions. For one: Since it's only a double dose of regular birth control, women over 18 (or girls with fake IDs) could get "the pill" without a prescription - or a doctor's warnings about side effects.


...personalizing the issue of lack of physician counseling about side effects, if Plan B becomes available OTC, by quoting an Ob/Gyn's concerns about losing the opportunity to present medical issues associated with OTC sales of Plan B...

Medical professionals have doubts. Dr. Vivian Roston, an OB-GYN at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, worries that over-the-counter access to emergency contraception [that would be Plan B] means she won't have the chance to educate her patients. "I wouldn't want someone not to have access [to emergency contraception]," she told me. "But then again, you lose the opportunity to present all the medical issues associated with taking a high-dose hormonal drug" [again, Plan B] if a woman doesn't have to see a doctor to get it.


(emphasis mine)

...where the above paragraph--about Dr. Roston's worries that OTC sales of Plan B would rob her of the opportunity to discuss with women medical issues associated with taking Plan B--is immediately followed by an enumeration of side effects...

Of course, some of the risks are mild, such as dizziness, weight gain and irregular periods. But others are more serious, if rare - cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attack and strokes.


it is not at all perfectly clear that the listed side effects are not those associated with Plan B, but rather those associated with some mythical "birth control".

Bottom line: This is not about Ms. Schachter's opinions on OTC sales of Plan B, or my reading comprehension and/or debating prowess. It's about the duty of a publication like the NY Post to present factually accurate medical information to its readers. Or not; in which case the NY Post should have no objection to publishing my article entitled "Plan B Causes Cooties."


*Dialogues In Contraception. Winter 2002;7(7):4

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4 Comments:

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Kaethe said...

Brava. I like the way you whip those facts around.

 
At 7:14 PM, Anonymous MissPinkKate said...

Remember, this is the NY Post we're talking about- it's not like they have a great reputation for factual journalistic efforts to further mankind. They're a tabloid- a low down, dirty rag. Still, would be nice if they'd try to get important stuff like this right.

 
At 9:31 PM, Blogger Andrea said...

Great post! The debate about emergency contraception by people in the media who do not fully comprehend the medical issues really irks me, too. Every time someone on TV talks about the issue I yell at the TV trying to correct them - for some reason they never seem to hear me, though :)

 
At 7:33 PM, Blogger miz_geek said...

My local paper just published the blurb from Reuters about Barr refiling their application under the headline "Firm may sell abortion pill over the counter."

Ugh.

I just wrote a nice letter to the editor about this. I hope I managed to stay calm enough.

 

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