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FDA orders new, stronger warning on birth control implant

The FDA is warning more strongly about Essure, a contraceptive implant that drew thousands of complaints from women reporting chronic pain and bleeding.
/ Source: TODAY

Federal health regulators plan to warn consumers more strongly about Essure, a contraceptive implant that drew thousands of complaints from women reporting chronic pain, bleeding and other health problems.

The Essure birth control implant.Uncredited / Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, Inc. via AP

The Food and Drug Administration announced Monday it would add a boxed warning — its most serious type — to alert doctors and patients to problems reported with the nickel-titanium implant.

Related: Essure contraceptive implant carries 'serious safety concern'

But the FDA stopped short of removing the device from the market, as requested by many women who have petitioned the agency in the last year. Instead, the agency is requiring manufacturer Bayer to conduct studies of the device to further assess its risks in different groups of women.

"More rigorous research is needed to better understand if certain women are at heightened risk of complications," said Dr. William Maisel, chief scientist for the FDA's device center.

The agency said in a statement that Essure is "an appropriate option for the majority of women," but that "some women may be at risk for serious complications," including damage to the uterus and fallopian tubes if the device shifts out of position.

Essure has been sold for more than a decade and is frequently pitched to women as the only non-surgical option for permanent birth control. It consists of two nickel-titanium coils inserted into the fallopian tubes, where they spur growth of scar tissue and block sperm from fertilizing a woman's eggs. Bayer estimates 750,000 women have received the device since 2002.

But the FDA has received thousands of reports of problems with the device from women and doctors. While the product's label warns about pelvic pain and bleeding immediately after the procedure, many women said these problems persisted and were so severe they required surgery to remove the device.

The FDA is requiring Bayer to study various complications with Essure, including unplanned pregnancy, pelvic pain and surgery to replace or remove the device. The company will compare rates of those problems to traditional surgical procedures used to "tie the tubes," via incision.

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Such studies generally take years to design and complete.

The proposed warning label will also take time to implement. The FDA is seeking public input for 60 days on the language for the warning and another proposed "check-list" that doctors would use to make sure patients understand the device's risks.

Related: FDA to Review Essure's Safety

"We strongly support a black box warning, but it needs to be a very strong one," said Diana Zuckerman of the National Center for Health Research.

In September, dozens of women urged the agency to recall the device at a public meeting on problems reported with Essure. In recent months they have been joined by members of Congress, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D- Connecticut, who said in a statement she would monitor the FDA's follow-up on Essure.

"The FDA cannot continue to drag its feet on medical device safety when women are suffering," DeLauro said in a statement after the FDA's plan was announced.

Essure's warning label previously noted that the device's nickel can result in allergic reactions, such as itching and hives.

Related: 8 nonprescription ways to ease menstrual cramps and headaches

But many women have attributed more severe problems to the implant, including mood disorders, weight gain, hair loss and irregular bleeding. Many of those complaints have been shared through social media, including a Facebook page called Essure Problems, which has grown to over 27,000 members.

"Essure is an important permanent birth control option with a positive benefit-risk profile," Bayer said in a statement. The German conglomerate said it would continue to work closely with the FDA.

--The Associated Press