Why so many women want this contraceptive pill banned

Photo credit: Issy Muir
Photo credit: Issy Muir

Six years ago, 483 young women turned up to Tamworth’s family planning clinic during a week in May - all demanding to be taken off their contraceptive pills. When it was her turn to reach the front desk, Yasmin* was asked why. “The pill just killed my best friend,” she responded.

More than 150 million women around the world use the oral contraceptive pill. Whatever brings you to the doctor’s surgery requesting it, the outcome is often the same. After a couple of minutes, you'll leave with a three-month supply.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

For Fallan Kurek, a 20-year-old teaching assistant, it was heavy periods that left her seeking help from her GP. She wasn’t sexually active, but was given Microgynon in October 2014 to help with her irregular cycle.

When she went to get a new supply of the pill in May 2015, Fallan was switched onto a cheaper alternative, Rigevidon. The doctor outlined that it had exactly the same hormonal ingredients; just a different name. Fallan was neither overweight nor a smoker, so was deemed ‘low risk’ by the doctor who prescribed her Rigevidon without running through the potential side effects.

Three weeks later, complaining of leg pain, the 19-year-old went back to her GP. She was told she was fine. When she had chest pain and collapsed a few days after that, Fallan went to the local hospital only to be told it was a panic attack, and that she would be okay.

Three days later, Fallan collapsed once more. It was a blood clot, and she never regained consciousness.

Written in black and white, on Fallan’s death certificate, is confirmation that her cause of death was the contraceptive pill. That something so small could take away something so precious clouded Fallan’s mum, Julia, with paralysing shock.

The GP told the family Fallan’s case was the exception not the rule; the stats say Fallan’s death was 1 in 10,000. But to her loved ones, it didn’t matter about the statistics. It was a devastating loss.

Years on, you only need to type ‘Rigevidon’ into Google to see what impact Fallan’s death had on other young women also taking that pill. Link after link guides you to petitions, message threads and blogs sharing other negative experiences of the pill. A post in The Student Room about Rigevidon, started in 2015, was still being added to in 2020. The anonymous woman who started the thread wrote: “This pill is making me crazy. What I want to know is if anyone else has experienced this same thing on Rigevidon or any other pill?”

Chelsea Lawton was one of the women who responded. She tells Cosmopolitan that Rigevidon caused her to have “extreme sickness, headaches and irregular bleeding.”

“I felt as though I had really bad anxiety and depression to the point that I didn’t want to leave the house,” she recalls. Since coming off Rigevidon, Chelsea says she finally feels like herself again.

Lola* also suffered unusual symptoms after being switched over to Rigevidon, but tried to ignore them until the advised three months had passed. “I started experiencing horrible cramps in my abdomen,” she says. “They were so bad, it felt like my insides were falling out. Just a couple of hours later my uterus lining started coming out of me. That’s when I knew I’d had enough.”

Yolanda* says her symptoms came on like “a ton of bricks”.

“I suffered from a clot in my brain in 2014 due to this pill. I didn’t realise it was so common,” she tells Cosmopolitan.

For most of us, the pill is extremely safe. As well as being a form of contraception, it can also provide health benefits including a reduced cancer risk, relief from acne, painful periods, premenstrual syndrome, polycystic ovaries and endometriosis. But that doesn’t mean it comes without side effects.

For one in every 10 pill-takers, there’ll be headaches, spots, mood swings (including depression), a reduced libido, breast pain, nausea, irregular bleeding, a change in weight, or unusual discharge that come along for the ride.

For one in every 100 women on the pill, there’ll be a change in appetite, elevated blood pressure, abdominal cramps, bloating and rashes.

And for one in every 10,000 people on the pill, there’ll be the ‘very rare side effects’. A tumour of the liver, immune system disease, inflammation of organs, blood clots.

So what is it about this pill that means the side effects are so much more common? Why was there an online petition with more than 27,000 signatures – set up by a woman who suffered a blood clot and a stroke herself as a result of this exact contraceptive - to get Rigevidon banned from the NHS?

If you break it down, Rigevidon is a contraceptive pill containing 30 mcg Ethinylestradiol (the hormone oestrogen) and 150 mcg Levonorgestrel (the hormone progesterone). As far as the hormone content is concerned, it is identical to other pills which have been on the market for decades, including Microgynon and Ovranette. Rigevidon has been available for the last few years as an alternative to these, and was introduced largely on the basis of reduced cost (it costs 3p per pack to produce).

Gynaecologist Dr Anne Henderson tells Cosmopolitan that, while Rigevidon is pharmacologically identical to other pills, her view is that “the additional constituents in Rigevidon, such as the binding agents which help form a stable pill, may be the issue. Even slight variations in the pharmacology of the combined pill such as this could impact on the way in which the pill is absorbed and thus any potential side effects.”

Dr Henderson tells us on an anecdotal basis that, in her own practice, she has noticed a rise in concerns amongst women she sees who have been prescribed Rigevidon. “I believe that these are legitimate concerns and they certainly appear to be more frequent than with other combined pills,” she said.

Abbas Kanani, a pharmacist at Chemist Click, has also observed a large number of females complaining about the side effects, specifically from Rigevidon. However, he also emphasises that the serious risks, like blood clots, are extremely rare and notes that “the benefits outweigh the risk”.

It is on this precise basis that contraceptive pills are prescribed on the NHS. As with any medication, they present risk, but their value in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy predominantly outweighs this. It is the job of the health professional who prescribes the contraceptive pill to warn the patient about side effects and what to look out for - but that may well be where the problem lies with Rigevidon.

As women online share their experiences of the pill and tag their friends, what really stands out is how many women say the same thing: “I wasn’t told of the risks.”

Julia Kurek, Fallan’s mother, was at the appointment where her daughter was handed Rigevidon. She insists they were not warned of any potential side effects of the contraceptive. “The warning signs to look out for aren’t widely known, that’s what gets me,” Julia tells Cosmopolitan.

When the grieving mother later asked medical professionals why they hadn’t been warned of possible risks, she alleges they said: “We don’t like to scare them, we don’t want to scaremonger.”

But how can it be scaremongering if it’s potentially lifesaving information? That valuable information is printed in a leaflet - deceivingly small, until it’s unfolded – that comes inside every pill packet. But how many women actually read it?

It was women who fought long and hard for the warning leaflet to be included inside the pill packet in the first place. When the first large-scale clinical trial on the pill took place in Puerto Rico in 1955, 17% of the women suffered significantly unpleasant side effects. In her first report, Dr. Edris Rice-Wray - medical director of the Puerto Rico Family Planning Association and the woman heading up the trials - said that, while the pill provided nearly 100% protection against unwanted pregnancies, it caused too many side reactions to be deemed acceptable.

The men who had ordered the research went ahead with the widespread production of the contraceptive pill anyway.

Years later, with ever-building evidence of blood clots as a side effect, women campaigned heavily. Their activism eventually led to the existence of an advisory leaflet being tucked away inside every packet of the pill – the ones we still see today. But if women aren’t being actively told by their healthcare providers just how important the information contained inside it really is - it’s not surprising that so many wouldn’t recognise potentially serious symptoms if they were to occur.

“Clinicians need to tell women about risks, and women need to listen,” Dr Sarah Hardman, Director of the Clinical Effectiveness Unit at the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) tells Cosmopolitan, stressing the necessity of a two-way process.

Being prescribed Rigevidon isn’t an inevitable death sentence. Plenty of women have switched over to it with no issue whatsoever. And if it provides a cost-saving mechanism for an NHS that is increasingly drowning in financial shortcomings, then the benefit of Rigevidon is indisputable. But not at the expense of people’s lives.

The contraceptive pill - what you need to know:

The combined oral contraceptive pill isn’t suitable for all women. If you are over 50, have a high BMI, smoke or have a family history of deep venous thrombosis (blood clots), then it is likely your GP or family planning clinic will suggest a different option for you.

If you do take the pill, these are the high-risk symptoms to look out for:

  • Always check carefully with your family if you have an history of blood clots. If you don’t know – make it clear to the doctor that you don’t know before going on the pill.

  • Symptoms pill users should be wary of include leg swelling and redness, often with pain in the calf area; increased shortness of breath, a cough which is either dry or associated with blood, chest pain and tightness. These could indicate a DVT or pulmonary embolism and medical attention should be sought.

  • If your symptoms are affecting your life, see your doctor – even if it’s before the 3 month ‘settling in’ period.

Cosmopolitan reached out to the manufacturer of Rigevidon, Gedeon Richter, for comment in relation to this article.

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