Doctors' emerging view of the birth control pill as relatively safe has not filtered into the public consciousness, according to results of an international survey. The majority of women polled in eight developing countries still believed, as did most American women in a similar study, that there are "substantial health risks" associated with the pill.
More than 60 million women, including about 9 million in the United States, now take birth control pills, which first came into use in 1956. According to population studies, the pill offers protection against cancer of the ovary and uterine lining, gonorrhea-related pelvic inflammatory disease, and iron-deficiency anemia. Its most important hazard, say federal scientists, is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease such as blood clots, strokes and heart attack, although new low-estrogen pills might minimize these dangers.
On balance, however, doctors believe that the beneficial effects of the pill outweigh any added risk.
And yet widespread "misperceptions about safety" have hindered efforts at family planning, according to Dr. Gary S. Grubb, associate medical director of Family Health International, a nonprofit research institution in North Carolina. Writing in the current Journal of Biosocial Science, Grubb noted that the risks of the pill are overstated and sometimes even invented, and "the protective effects of the pill are virtually unknown," by the women his group surveyed.
Grubb's study was based on door-to-door interviews with 1,057 women of childbearing age in Chile, Costa Rica, Egypt, Mexico, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The results were similar to those of a poll conducted the previous year among American women. Fifty to 75 percent of respondents said there were "substantial health risks" in taking the pill, but they did not really understand what those health risks were. Respondents tended to overestimate the pill's cancer hazards; in Chile, for example, one third of those surveyed thought the pill caused stomach cancer, with which it has never been associated.
And respondents tended to underestimate the pill's real hazards; in Egypt, for example, 90 percent of women did not know the pill increases the risk of heart disease. In most countries, women taking the pill had no more knowledge of its effects than those who were not using it.