Monday, February 21, 2011

Myths and truth on contraception and health

A health survey in the UK has revealed that myths about contraception may be widespread. These myths on contraceptives have been around for thousands of years. Other myths surround the use of oral contraceptive pills. 10% of the women surveyed believe that it takes many years to regain fertility after discontinuation of the pill. Others believe that the pill could protect them against HIV.

20% of women, who took part in the survey by market research company Opinion Health, sponsored by Bayer Schering Pharma said they had heard of kitchen items including bread, cling film and even chicken skin, being used as alternative contraceptives. Others had heard food items such as kebabs, Coca-cola or crisps could be effective as oral contraceptives. The survey covered 1,000 women aged 18 to 50 years from UK.

Ancient contraceptive methods varied from the use of crocodile dung and honey before sex to sea sponges and beeswax after. The most interesting was alcohol distilled from stewed beaver's testicles. It seems that a variety of unsafe and unproven methods still exist in modern Britain, as the survey shows.

Many herbal medicines sold ‘over the counter’ today are claimed by herbalists to act as abortifacients. Some examples are brewer's yeast, vitamin C, wild carrot, blue cohosh, black cohosh, slippery elm, nutmeg, mugwort, papaya, vervain, common rue, ergot, saffron, pennyroyal and tansy.

There is a myth that douching with fluids immediately after intercourse works as a contraceptive, but it is untrue. Due to flow of the fluids and the structure of the female reproductive tract, douching will actually speed up spread of semen towards the uterus. A slight spermicidal effect may occur if the douche solution is acidic, but acidic liquids cause other complications too.

There is a popular belief that unripe papayas can cause miscarriage due to its latex content that causes uterine contractions leading to a miscarriage. This has never been proven, though papaya seed extracts in large doses were found to have a contraceptive effect on rats and monkeys, but in small doses they had no effect on the unborn babies.

There are many more funny ideas and practices prevalent even in modern times like the use of toothpaste as contraceptive and urinating after sex to prevent pregnancy. There are also reports of women drinking solutions containing mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances for avoiding or terminating pregnancy. These poisonous substances can disrupt the reproductive system and some cause even cancer.

The herbs tansy and pennyroyal were most popular in the ancient folklore as preventive medication for abortion, but these induce abortion by poisoning women. Levels of toxic chemicals in tansy and pennyroyal are too high to damage liver, kidneys and other vital internal organs. Maybe for this reason, maternal deaths from postpartum complications were very high.

Pennyroyal oil is highly concentrated, dangerously toxic and even in small doses it can cause death. Many serious health complications have been reported from attempts to use pennyroyal oil for self-induced abortion.

Tansy, a medicinal herb, has been in the Irish folklore since mid 1800s, but tansy is so toxic that an overdose can be fatal. However, traditionally, tansy was often used for its emmenagogue effects (ability to cause menstruation in pregnant women) to end an unwanted pregnancy. Pregnant women should avoid this herb and medications containing it.

Various effective methods of birth control were known in the ancient world, in contrast to ignorance of these methods in wide segments of the population of early modern Europe. Arab physicians of Medieval Periods documented extensive lists of birth control practices including the use of abortifacients in their medical encyclopedias. Muhammad ibn Zakariya ar-Razi listed 176 in his Hawi (10th century) and Avicenna listed 20 abortifacients in The Canon of Medicine (11th century).

Some European women used beeswax to avoid pregnancy, before the condom, initially made of a length of animal intestine, appeared in the 17th century. Asian women are said to have used oiled paper as a cervical cap to avoid pregnancy. The Greek gynaecologist Soranus (2nd century) suggested that women drink water that blacksmiths had used to cool iron to avoid pregnancy.

Some herbalists claim that black cohosh tea is effective as an abortifacient. Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (common names: Chinese hibiscus, China rose and shoe flower), known in Ayurveda as a contraceptive, may have anti-estrogenic properties.

Ancient Egyptian women had used a pessary (a vaginal suppository) made of various acidic substances and lubricated with honey or oil to kill sperms. But, as sperm cell could not have been discovered until Anton van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope in the late 17th century, the Egyptians could not have had knowledge of the details of conception.

Silphium (of aromatic parsley plants family), a powerful abortifacient reported to have low levels of side effects, was harvested to extinction around the 1st century. The ancient Greek colony of Cyrene in those times had an economy based entirely on the production and export of silphium.

Instead of depending on myths, popular beliefs and quacks, on matters like preventing pregnancy, abortion, and related matters of health, women should always consult qualified physicians and use only those contraceptives and medicines to avoid unwanted health problems.

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