NATIONAL

Doctors, pharmacists in tug-of-war over morning-after pills

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jun 5, 2012 - 19:55
  • Updated : Jun 5, 2012 - 19:55

Should emergency contraception require a doctor’s prescription? That question has doctors and pharmacists engaged in a tug-of-war over control of a market worth 6.2 billion won ($5.39 million) annually.

Doctors insist that the distribution of emergency contraception, known as morning-after pills, should be done under doctor supervision for safety reasons.

Pharmacists, however, claim that wider and easier access to the drugs will prevent unwanted pregnancies often leading to abortion.

The dispute will reach a conclusion on Thursday when the Korea Food and Drug Administration is set to reclassify drug usage and grading.

On Saturday, the Korean Pharmaceutical Association released a public statement urging the government to list the emergency pills as over-the-counter drugs that do not require a doctor’s prescription. Pharmacists say deregulation would decrease the number of illegal abortions, of which there are estimated to be around 300,000 a year.

“Emergency pills are effective when taken within 12 hours of sexual intercourse and 72 hours utmost. Finding and visiting a doctor in that limited time is very difficult,” the organization said.

“The drugs are prescribed upon the request of the patients because even the doctors are not certain whether the woman has conceived within the short period of time. Visiting a doctor is of less use than many people think,” Kim Koo, head of the organization, said.

“In a way, conventional pills are much riskier. Long-term exposure to oral contraceptives is much more harmful. Think of it, your hormone secretion is being manipulated regularly for years. But many of them are sold without doctors’ prescription.”

If restrictions are lifted, the morning-after pill market is expected to increase rapidly. Pharmacists have been demanding the reclassification of the drugs as compensation for lost sales incurred when several over-the-counter drugs began to be sold at supermarkets.

Doctors, however, defend the current system, saying that emergency pills could pose critical health risks to women.

“Emergency pills shift the hormonal action of the body to an extreme level since it should be able to prevent conception. The hormone contained in the drug is 10-15 times stronger than regular pills. Then how critical can that be? It naturally requires doctors’ consideration and monitoring,” Chung Ho-jin of the Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology said.

The reported side effects include unexpected bleeding, irregular menstruation, headache, nausea and vomiting.

Gynecologists say the pills need extra care and that allowing wider access could encourage irresponsible sex, especially among teenagers.

“In Sweden, the morning-after pills were reclassified as OTC from 2001. By 2007, the abortion rate increased by 17 percent. The more important thing is that the failure rate of the abortion pills is more than 15 percent, which shows that the drug is not a cure to irresponsible sex,” the group claimed in a press release Tuesday.

It claimed that conventional birth control pills should be taken under the doctors’ supervision, too.

“The pills are made of synthetic estrogen and synthetic progesterone as well as other hormones. We need special care over it,” Chung said.

Some religious groups expressed concerns about wider access to the drugs, too.

Catholics in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, held a protest in front of the KFDA headquarters, urging the authorities to maintain the current classification of the drug.

“The pills could easily hurt the morals of people, especially teenagers, about life. They should be respected,” the group said.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)