Budget cuts keep birth control under wraps

Bryan Calabro

Phat Nguyen, News Editor

Wilkes business major Emily Dickson was one of the many users affected by Pfizer’s birth control recall of more than 1 million packages on Feb.1.

Fortunately when she had checked with her pharmacist, she found her birth control was not one of the prescriptions in jeopardy.

“I double checked the recalled meds and saw that I wasn’t taking anything recalled, so I think I should be safe,” Dickson said.

She was told the affected packets had an expiration date ranging between July 31, 2013 and March 31, 2014 and with list of lot numbers available on Pfizer’s website.

None of her medications fit the description.

Pfizer’s testing revealed that some blister packs contained an inexact count of inert or active ingredient tablets and that the tablets could be out of sequence.

“No students have come to Health and Wellness Services worried about Pfizer’s recall,” said Diane O’Brien, the director of Health and Wellness at Wilkes.

Due to changes in Pennsylvania state law, Wilkes is “no longer in the business of handing out birth control,” and she believes most students would either go through Pfizer or their pharmacist.

The previous Wilkes’ policy used to cover the first pack for free with each additional pack costing $20.

“With new state laws, they have to run it through students’ insurance,” O’Brien said. “That makes it tough for the kids.”

O’Brien would refer concerned students to Women to Women or Planned Parenthood since the university does not deal with birth control anymore.

Three years ago, Wilkes invited Women to Women, a nurse practitioner group that specializes in gynecology, to teach women’s health at the university.

Cheryl Fuller of Women to Women has not seen many students following the cuts in government funding.

“Wilkes students used to come to us but ever since the government funding has changed, we haven’t had too many Wilkes students,” Fuller said.

She said her patients have not been affected by the recall either.

“We were concerned at first, but none of our patients were on the recalled medications. If they were, we would’ve called them and had their prescription changed,” Fuller said.

The Wilkes-Barre Planned Parenthood branch had only seen two patients concerned about the recall.

Wilkes alumnus Dr. Donald Miller, the pharmacist in charge of Kingston’s CVS, has not seen many concerned users of Pfizer’s birth control medications.

“Part of the reason is that I believe it was mostly the brand,” Miller said. “We don’t have a whole lot of people who are on the ones that were recalled, so we haven’t seen too much impact.”

Drugs are made in batches on a large scale that can make up to millions at a time. Each batch is issued a lot number on the outside of the packages to differentiate one from the next.

“They probably test each lot, but with thousands to test, it probably takes a while to get results,” Miller said. “They probably release the lots to the market and if they find a problem with one of the lots, that’s when they do a recall.”

Pfizer recalled 14 lots of Lo-Ovral-28 birth control and 14 lots of its generic norgestrel and ethinyl estradiol tablets on Feb. 1. Lo-Orval and its generic are oral contraceptives mainly used to prevent pregnancy.

Those 28 lots totaled over 1 million packages.

O’Brien believes a small imbalance of hormones can cause problems.

“Birth control works by tricking your body into not ovulating,” O’Brien explained. “If the amounts are off by just a little, there can certainly be consequences. I would hope girls are taking extra precaution. I know some don’t, but they really should.”

The recalls are handled in a few different ways, Miller said. At a manufacturer level, people can no longer order the medication. At the patient level, the pharmacies call the patients about their prescriptions.

“During the Digitek recall, we actually had to call everyone on that prescription.  That took us hours to call and try to get them to bring it back,” Miller said.

Digitek, a medication that is used in the treatment of heart conditions, was recalled in the spring of 2008 after some medication was found to contain twice the appropriate levels of the active ingredient.

Because the Pfizer recall was the manufacturer’s responsibility, pharmacists were not given a similar calling list, Miller said.

Birth control pills are normally packaged in blister packs containing 21 tablets of active ingredients and with seven placebo tablets. Contraception may be significantly weakened if the sequence of birth control pills is out of order, Fuller said.

“If this is the case, patients may be at higher risk for unintended pregnancy,” Fuller said.

While birth control medications seem very similar chemically, they have something called an “estrogenic effect,” Miller said. “That effect can be drastically different between them even though the chemicals could be pretty close to the same; sometimes the effect is different.”

“You’ll still get the coverage as far as having children but the problem would be mood swings, weight gain, weight loss or agitation. All of those things could be expected when they are taking things that have been recalled.”

Pfizer’s Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Freida Lewis-Hall said all lots possibly affected were recalled, the problem was fixed and prevention measures are now in place.

But even if the error was limited, women who took pills from any of the recalled lots should use a non-hormonal form of birth control immediately, Lewis-Hall said. She urged woman on Lo-Ovral or Norgestrel to take caution and consult their doctors immediately.

“If you are a woman in the United States who has used Lo-Ovral or Norgestrel pills over the last several months, please consult with your physician and begin using a non hormonal barrier method immediately,”  Lewis-Hall said in a press release.

Non hormonal barrier methods are only used during sexual intercourse. They include male condoms, female condoms, diaphragms, caps and spermicidal lubrication.

Wilkes Health and Wellness Services has provided free male condoms in its waiting room for students for the last 20 years, O’Brien said.

“Students will always utilize that,” O’Brien said. “The kids know they can take as many as they want. We’re just happy that they use them.”

Health and Wellness Services is on the first floor of Passan Hall.