When it comes to contraception for men, the only available methods are the condom, the vasectomy or abstinence. As more than 10 billion male condoms are used each year, according to the United Nations Population Fund, the prophylactic appears to be preferable to the other options. Soon, however, hormonal contraceptives may give men another choice when trying to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
The World Health Organization is funding an ongoing study of the use of hormones to suppress sperm production. The hormones are administered via injection every eight weeks, and once injections cease their effects reverse within months.
Hormonal methods are already used by women in such forms as “the pill” or “the patch,” but the introduction of a “birth control shot” would be the first of its kind made available to men. The WHO is currently studying the hormonal cocktail of progestin and androgen on males. The progestin lowers testosterone levels below those necessary for sperm production, while the androgen substitutes for the decreased testosterone to maintain health and sex drive. The experiments have shown to be close to 100 percent effective without any apparent side effects aside from the occasional shrinking of the testes, according to the WHO.
While the results may seem promising, the question remains whether men would be willing to use such a method. Although declining to be quoted, many male students expressed concern over additional side effects that could be discovered. However, others said that they would trust the judgment of the WHO and government agencies if the organizations were to approve the contraceptive.
“If it’s effective, then people will use it,” Spencer Katz ’13 said. “And if it’s not permanent, people will use it.”
Both men and women also saw the birth control shot as a welcome addition to the prophylactic portfolio that would allow men to be more involved in using contraception.
“In a lot of ways,” Allyson Lieberman ’10 stated, “the burden is only on women, even with the condom.”
Matthew Gaba ’12 added, “It balances the equation, taking off some of the responsibility for women.”
There may also be important applications in developing countries. Dr. Kirsten M. Vogelsong, a scientist at the WHO managing the study, wrote in an e-mail, “It is estimated that about 125 million couples in the developing world are not using contraception even though they don’t want to have a child for at least 2 years.” She added that “it is important to provide as wide a range as possible of all contraceptive methods.”
In addition to the WHO, the study is co-funded by CONRAD, a non-profit organization based at the Eastern Virginia Medical School that works to improve reproductive health, particularly in developing countries. The WHO’s study began in early 2008 and is scheduled to last until the end of 2010. So even if the birth control shot is proven to be safe and effective, it will not be released for at least a few years.
The development of this shot comes at a time when other forms of contraception are becoming more widely-available. In June, the FDA approved a generic version of Plan B manufactured by Watson Pharmaceuticals. This generic, called “Next Choice,” has the same active ingredient as Plan B, two doses of levonorgestrel. The drug is available over-the-counter for women 17 and over, but requires a prescription for women 16 and under. Despite the heavily reduced consumer cost of generic drugs, it is unclear how much Next Choice will affect the sales of Plan B.
“This is not a product people buy based on price,” Ronnie Gal, the specialty pharmaceuticals analyst at Bernstein, said in an e-mail. “The financial, emotional, or medical costs of having or terminating a pregnancy are far greater than [the cost of] Plan B.”
The future success of the male birth control shot and Next Choice therefore depends on males’ willingness to suffer through bimonthly injections, and females’ willingness to trust generics.