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Contraceptive Innovation at Women Deliver – A Look at the Past, The Present, The Future

Written by Aubrey Weber, Technical Officer, FHI 360

Next week, more than 8,000 researchers, policy makers, and advocates from 160+ countries will gather in Vancouver, British Columbia, to discuss the future of women: their health, their strength, and their autonomy. Women Deliver is the largest global conference the health, rights, and well-being of women and girls. As part of this agenda, we cannot talk about the future of women without talking about a critical topic in development: family planning.

Currently, there are about 15 different types of contraceptive products on the global market that allow individuals to enjoy sex with a decreased to nearly non-existent risk of pregnancy. There’s the pill, the injectable, the IUD, condoms, implants, sterilization, diaphragms, clinically registered fertility apps, and more. Sounds like a lot of options, doesn’t it?

And it is. In the approximate year of 3000 B.C. – just as the city of Troy was founded, early agriculture sprouted up in North Africa, and construction began on Stonehenge – the very first male condoms were fashioned from linen sheaths, fish bladders, and animal intestines.

Fast-forward some 4,800-odd years (well into the 1800s) and then had male condoms and female diaphragms being produced from vulcanized rubber!

Fortunately, a lot has happened in the world of contraception since vulcanized rubber.

Just a few short decades ago in the 1990s, the first contraceptive implant (Norplant, 1990), the first contraceptive injectable (Depo-Provera, 1992), the first female condom (FC1/Reality, 1993), and the first form of emergency contraception (Plan B, 1998) were formally introduced.

Today, we have these options and several others. History has taught us that as time progresses, so does progress itself. The pace of contraceptive research and novel product development, clinical trials, and ultimately introduction has increased since those creative linen sheaths were first put to the test. This is positive news in the world of global public health, especially as public health champions can often get stuck in the weeds of the work and fail to see the strides we are making.

But, along with that positive news comes the reality that the options we have not adequate. There is still much work to be done. A host of factors are at play when individuals choose a method: barriers to access, method that don’t meet women’s needs, issues with acceptability of current methods, cultural stigmas and taboos, social norms, and desire for multipurpose prevention technologies (for example, birth control that also protects against HIV) are just a few. And what about the men? They need more options, too, so that family planning can truly be a family affair.

This year’s Women Deliver will feature several sessions that address the important topic of contraceptive innovation including:

  • The FHI 360 Booth will feature the history of family planning as part of an exhibit, “From Mercury to Microneedles: A Brief History of Contraceptive Innovation.”

  • A session entitled, “Let’s Get What We Want: Contraceptive Innovation, Access, Quality, and Choice” which is being organized by Family Planning 2020, FHI 360, and UNFPA.

  • The Population Foundation of India will hold a session entitled “Court of Sex: Breaking Taboos around Sexual and Reproductive Health,” showcasing successful examples of social and behavior change communication programs.

  • “Beyond the Pilot: Scaling Up What Works in Adolescent Sexuality Education, Contraception, and Maternal Health” will be presented by Jhpiego, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, White Ribbon Alliance, and the World Health Organization.

  • Family Planning 2020, FHI 360, and UNFPA will discuss links between HIV and sexual and reproductive health and help us better understand the interaction between hormonal contraception and HIV acquisition in “Getting it Right: Family Planning and HIV Services.”

  • Four global USAID-funded projects will confer over the historic investment made in expanding contraceptive choice and access in “What Works: Using Evidence from the World’s Largest Family Planning Programs to Reach Global Goals.”

These events are just a preview of what’s to come next week at Women Deliver with regard to contraception and family planning. To view the full schedule of events at Women Deliver 2019, click here.

As participants gather in Vancouver to discuss the broader agenda of gender equality and health, it is critical to remember that 1.6 billion women of reproductive age live in developing countries and about half of them want to avoid pregnancy. Yet, 214 million of these women have an unmet need for modern contraception. This is why we must keep working to develop and introduce new methods from a user-centered design perspective. Only through that lens will we be able to envision a world in which unmet need is a thing of the past.