Diane-35: Reconsidering the risks

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2013-08-01

Diane-35 has also been linked to depression. Although the insert states this adverse effect would be only “mild” if present, women on Diane-35 have reported severe depression leading to suicidal thoughts. The Medications and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in the United Kingdom conducted a review in 2006 on the basis of these reports.  The women detailed doctors prescribing anti-depressants rather than considering that the change could be caused by the pill. The review also highlighted the length of time most of the women involved had been on Diane-35 (sold as Dianette in the UK), which was far longer than the approved period. The MHRA advised doctors to be vigilant but also suggested they could withdraw the medication only to prescribe it again if the acne returns which, as mentioned, is likely to happen.

Amy Sedgwick is the co-founder of the Toronto-based Red Tent Sisters organization. She counts among her clients many women who have decided to stop using hormonal birth control as a contraceptive or as a medication for any number of issues for which it is prescribed, including acne and PCOS. She coaches these women through the transition, tutoring them in body literacy and fertility awareness.

“The pill isn’t prescribed the way other drugs are prescribed. There’s an assumption that every young woman should be on it.  We assume the pill is safe and no big deal partly because it is everywhere,” asserts Sedgwick, “Diane-35 has been over-prescribed but this is just an extension of a wider problem. People barely think of the pill as a drug. It’s just become part of normal life. The advertising targets young teens like birth control pills are an accessory, like it’s the same as any other thing you would find in a young woman’s bedroom or purse.”

Sedgwick admits that none of her clients feel they were properly informed of the potential risks of the pill when it was prescribed, nor were they warned of what they may experience when they stopped taking it. “The only way the benefits would outweigh the risks in prescribing this drug is if there were no other options, but there are,” says Sedgwick. “We need to make sure there are supports in place …  Perhaps women would choose differently if they knew that there were alternatives.”

Just a month after the Health Canada decision on Diane-35, as this article is readied for publication, the aforementioned contraceptive pills Yaz and Yasmin that double as acne-treatment hit the headlines again with reports of an estimated 23 deaths of young women in Canada. This news is a stark reminder of the danger of prescribing powerful drugs with serious harmful effects when there are viable and safer alternatives available.  

As for Diane-35, its off-label use continues despite Health Canada warnings, and the manufacturer Bayer stands behind all three of its products despite the deaths and lawsuits.

We need a sea change in thinking about the overall safety of oral contraceptives. With stories like those of Diane-35 and Yaz/Yasmin, isn’t it high time we make this discussion more public?

Holly Grigg-Spall is a women’s health writer and activist. Her book, Sweetening the Pill or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control will be published by Zero Books on September 27, 2013 (www.sweeteningthepill.com).

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