Warning: This Birth Control Product May Be Hazardous to Your Health

by guest blogger Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families

“Was I just unlucky, or is this medical product not really safe?” That’s a question I get asked often, and was recently asked about Essure, a “permanent birth control” device made by Bayer.

At first it seemed these women were just unlucky. But after gathering more information, it now looks like there could be much greater risks than patients are being advised of.

In case you’re wondering, permanent birth control means sterilization. The purpose of Essure is to prevent a woman from ever getting pregnant again. For some women, preventing any future pregnancies could save their lives. So it is obviously a problem when Essure doesn’t work and women get pregnant, which was one of the problems I heard about. But I also heard from women who were in terrible, unrelenting pain, feeling that their lives had been ruined by this product.

Since National Research Center for Women and Families is known as an objective source of medical information and isn’t on the payroll of any companies, the women asked, “What do you know?” and “Is this product really safe, or are there a lot of other women like me?” And also, “Can you warn other women?”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has much lower standards for medical implants than it does for prescription drugs, so I checked out Essure on the FDA website and was pleasantly surprised to see that the FDA had required clinical trials, which the agency often doesn’t require for implants. These studies of women with Essure implants showed that Essure patients had a rather low rate of complications.

The studies showed that the main problem was that sometimes the device fell out. If the woman didn’t realize it, she could get pregnant. If she did realize it, she’d need to get a replacement implant or use another type of birth control.

There was about a 5 percent rate of serious complications reported—not great (especially if a complication happens to somebody we care about), but not a bad rate, either. Since all birth control has some risks (such as potentially fatal blood clots), and since pregnancy has rather substantial health risks (an even greater risk of potentially fatal blood clots), the studies of Essure seemed reassuring (no pun intended).

Sometimes studies can be deceiving, however, especially when conducted by the company trying to sell you the product. An NBC news investigative team interviewed Kim Hudak, one of the women in the study who has had terrible pain in the years since she got Essure. The reporters found that the telephone surveys and medical visits that were used to provide data for the company’s study had yielded information about her terrible health problems after Essure but hadn’t counted them as complications. The health professionals conducting the study had made very subjective decisions: for example, that excruciating pain in the same part of her body as the Essure device somehow was unrelated to Essure and therefore needn’t be counted as a complication. Instead, they reported Kim’s experience with Essure as “excellent” and Kim as “very satisfied.” Meanwhile, Kim was in excruciating pain—and had gained 100 pounds from the medications she was given as doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. Kim told me that she thought her health problems might possibly be caused by Essure but believed the doctor when he told her they weren’t.

Eventually, Kim was in so much pain that she ignored the doctor’s advice and had her Essure implant removed. Kim told me that her health has dramatically improved ever since, and she has lost most of the weight she had gained.

This is not the story of one woman. It’s a story about how poorly conducted research provides inaccurate information that can potentially harm thousands if not millions of patients. Whether the study was intentionally fraudulent or just badly conducted by some of the medical professionals involved, the results are the same for Kim and anyone misled by the completely inaccurate reporting of her terrible medical problems. The fact that Bayer was accused just two years ago of covering up deaths from Yasmin, another one of its birth control products, does add extra drama. Can the company’s studies be trusted? And should the FDA do a better job of scrutinizing them?

It doesn’t take much to monitor these studies. For example, you can see in Kim’s study survey where her health problems were clearly written and then somebody crossed them out, added his or her initials to show this was an official revision, and changed the answer from “Yes” (I have health problems since getting Essure) to “No.” The woman interviewing Kim also checked “excellent” and “very satisfied.”

If that had only happened to Kim and nobody else, then perhaps Essure could be almost as safe as the company reported.  But the same people who collected data on Kim also “studied” other women, so it’s likely that such changes and inaccuracies happened numerous times. That would mean that FDA’s decision to approve Essure was based on inaccurate information.

Instead of monitoring the company’s studies, unfortunately, the FDA has defended them.  While the NBC investigative reporters were gathering information, the FDA wrote a new article for its website defending the safety of Essure.

As a person who uses medical products, what can you do to make sure you aren’t harmed by implants or medications that aren’t really safe? There is no easy answer. But there are a few things you can do:

  1. Before starting a new medication or agreeing to a new medical implant or device, go online. Go to your favorite search engine and type in the name of the product and the word “problems” or “risks” or “complications.” That will usually take you to web pages that list the possible problems with the product. You can even go to the official website for the product. Although a company’s website will advertise how great the product is, by law the company is also required to list all the possible complications that the FDA has found. This isn’t a perfect source of information (as my Essure example shows), but it will provide some warnings of what the risks are.
  2. For prescription drugs, you can also go the ConsumerReport.org’s Best Buy Drugs website to get information that compares the drug you are considering with other drugs that can be used for the same purpose. The site doesn’t have information about all drugs, but it does have good comparison information about many widely used drugs.
  3. Check out www.center4research.org and www.stopcancerfund.org for information about many drugs and devices. And, if you are having trouble finding the information you’re looking for, you can contact our Center’s free hotline at info@center4research.org to ask us. You’ll receive a free, personal response within days.

One more thing to remember: The newest medical products are often not the best, even though they’re the most expensive. FDA approves new medical products on the basis of information that is provided by the company making the product. It isn’t until the product has been used by many thousands of patients in the real world that it’s possible to learn what all the risks are and how it compares to other treatments.

Diana Zuckerman is the president of the National Research Center for Women & Families. She received her PhD from Ohio State University and was a post-doctoral fellow in epidemiology and public health at Yale Medical School. After serving on the faculty of Vassar and Yale and as a researcher at Harvard, Dr. Zuckerman spent a dozen years as a health policy expert in the U.S. Congress and a senior policy adviser in the Clinton White House. She is the author of five books, several book chapters, and dozens of articles in medical and academic journals as well as in newspapers across the country.


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9 Responses to Warning: This Birth Control Product May Be Hazardous to Your Health

  1. Sheila Pitt November 19, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    Please ask the FDA for the 5 year post approval study results. Please ask FDA for study results on side effects 5+ years.
    Please help study what problems arise and what is best protocal when a women with essure develops a nickel reaction.

    Please check out essureprocedure.net as Erin Brockovich is helping to also ask questions about Essure problems.

    If you want my story, please contact me.

  2. Alice Green November 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    It makes me sad how many women have to suffer this way. I just wonder, if men were the ones who had to get ‘devices’ put into their bodies to keep the women they love from pregnancy, would the devices be much safer and tested better before use? Some how I feel they would be completely safer and completely painless!

  3. deborah ezra November 19, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Thank you so much for reporting on this. I too was told essure was safe, there weren’t any side effects. Immediately after being implanted I was having terrible pain, horrible lower back pain. My periods were terrible. I suspected essure right away and was told it couldn’t be essure because the data shows it couldn’t be. After searching online, because I was suspicious of essure, I found the essure problems group. I was crying because I couldn’t believe thousands of women had exactly the same symptoms as I did, that is not a coincidence when our common denominator was essure. In 9 months since being implanted I have gained so much weight, have an enlarged uterus, fibroid, cyst on my liver, low vit D, and I can go on. Thank you for listening and spreading the word, so more women will not get this done and that hopefully the FDA and Bayer will do what is right.

  4. Vanessa November 19, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    I used an implant similar to Essure and while I (thankfully) did not have any of the physically painful side effects, my mood was incredibly low and imbalanced and I put on weight. After 3 years, I finally removed it and slowly felt my body return to my “normal” weight, and my moods return to stable and even happy!

    I should have Googled all the forums for the product where users reported side effects, and I urge everyone woman out there to do the same, no matter what product you are considering! You owe it to yourself!

  5. Joleen Chambers November 19, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    Thank you, Diana Zuckerman and National Research Center for Women and Families! The public believes the mission of the FDA is to clear only safe and effective implanted devices, but the 1976-era FDA charter does not allow for voting Patient Representatives and most devices are ‘grandfathered’ in through 510(k) process that does not require testing. Further, there is no long-term non-proprietary (independent) tracking that would signal the need for a recall. So, patient harm mounts and federal legal settlements benefit lawyers and the secrecy of the industry far more than the public and harmed/exploited patients. Informed consent is a myth. Medical harm is legal crime. Congress could fix this!

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  7. Debra Danks April 28, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

    I just found this entry in my old email. I follow the Essure Problems Facebook page. Presently, there are 7,000 women on the site. I do not know the number of “e-babies” but there are several births and new pregnancies every week. Many of the women on the Facebook site have had or are planning to have hysterectomies. At this moment, 3 administrators of the Essure Problems group are in Germany, attending the Bayer shareholders meeting where they will speak on the facts affecting women who have had the procedure. Doctors who implant the device receive a substantial “kickback” from the company. Thanks for using this blog to inform!

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