The human condition: Welcome to the (over-priced) post-pill era

A neat new kit offers hi-tech contraception - at a price. Cayte Williams reports

Cayte Williams
Saturday 05 October 1996 23:02

Women have always suffered for contraception. If it's not pill- popping, it's inserting caps which ping across the bathroom floor. And for men, unfurling a slimy, unerotic condom defeats the most erotic of moments. Now, apparently, it's all over. We can enjoy a 95 per cent reliable, sex-friendly, over-the-counter contraceptive kit.

Hailed as "a revolution in the field of contraception", Persona claims to be a computer age version of the rhythm method. Microprocessors replace calendar calculations as the device builds up a personalised database of the user's monthly cycle. A hand-held monitor contains an Application Specific Chip and a built-in clock capable of telling the user on what days of the month she can have sex without the risk of pregnancy. The monitor gives a red light for no, a green light for go, and a yellow light if she needs to take a urine sample. Urine test sticks are used 16 times the first month and eight times a month onwards.

The boffins at Unipath, who have developed Persona over the past 15 years with more than 1,200 women involved in case studies, are gushing with delight over their new product.

Persona is the first time computers have been applied to contraception and the monitor is a sophisticated little system. It identifies two hormones in urine which give the most reliable warning of the fertile period, and compiles the information on to a database. However, it is not suitable for women with irregular periods which fluctuate for more than 10 days.

A woman risks pregnancy between six and 10 days a month but contraception methods are used continuously. After three months Persona pinpoints these fertile days. It's a device tailor-made for the 1990s independent woman in a long-term relationship who wants to know more about her body and control her contraception.

Revolutionary it is. Not only is it an advance into computer technology, it's also thrust contraception onto the market place. It's expensive - pounds 49.95 for a starter pack, pounds 9.95 a month from then on - and is not available on the NHS. Women who do not suit the Pill, IUD, or hate the condom will, hopefully, have lots of cash. "It's up to the Government as to whether it goes on the NHS," says Keith May, vice-president of research at Unipath. "I would be delighted if Persona was on the NHS, I hope it can be made more widely available, but it's not under our control."

So whose control is it under? "The manufacturing company has to apply for a listing on the NHS's Drug Tariff and then it is considered,"says Martin Richards from the Department of Health. Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association illuminates. "The NHS tries to resist things which are expensive. The Pill costs between 60p and pounds 3 a packet, it's a very cheap form of contraception. The Government is going more for medicines being available over the counter. Some argue that this is part of a policy of making things more accessible, others that it is shifting the burden of money to the individual," she explains. "Family Planning Clinics should be able to offer a total range of contraception. Family Planning Clinics at least should be able to get hold of it."

But what of the good old rhythm method, recently heralded as being the most reliable form of contraception? "You have to be taught how to use it, and must be highly motivated to keep it up," says Anne Weyman. "You have to monitor your temperature, vaginal mucus and changes in the breasts. It takes more effort and it's very complicated." Professor Bob Snowden, a specialist in Reproductive Behaviour who conducted the research, thinks the device will at last involve partners. "With Persona, men can become involved in decisions about when to and when not to have sex." However, Professor John Guillebaud, Director of the Margaret Pyke Centre is less convinced. "It won't work with people who don't have a very good relationship," he comments. "I've heard the most common traffic offence among men is driving through a red light. The man might just kick the thing under the bed."

8 Persona is available at Boots nationwide. Information booklets can be obtained by calling 0345 447744.

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