After decade off-market, contraception is ‘sponge-worthy’ again

On April 22, the Food and Drug Administration approved the reintroduction of the contraceptive vaginal sponge to U.S. markets.

Vanessa Cullins, vice president for medical affairs of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, hailed the decision with the following statement:

“We are very pleased that the Today Sponge has been reintroduced to the American market. This over-the-counter method provides yet another contraceptive option, and the more options women have the better able they are to prevent unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion.”

The sponge – an easy to use and reliable means of birth control – was the favorite nonprescription birth control product of women prior to its withdrawal from the market in 1995.

“The sponge allows women to take charge of their own sexual behavior, and to have control over contraception and disease prevention,” said Kori Herbert, a registered nurse with the Planned Parenthood Nurse Advice Line in Portland.

Originally approved for sale in the United States in 1983, some 250 million sponges were sold between 1983 and 1995.

Each contoured polyurethane sponge is impregnated with 1 gram of Nonoxynol-9, a spermicide that kills sperm before they can reach and fertilize an egg.

Today sponges are “one size fits all” and do not require an examination or a prescription.

“I would recommend the sponge for a woman who wasn’t interested in using hormones and simply wanted a barrier method type of birth control,” Herbert said.

To use, the sponge is inserted into the vagina before an act of intercourse. It works by creating a barrier over the cervix and slowly releasing its spermicide.

“It may not be the best device for a woman who isn’t comfortable with her body,” Herbert said. “If she’s uncomfortable inserting the sponge, there’s the risk of improper placement and of birth control failure.”

Once inserted, each sponge provides protection for multiple acts of intercourse during a 24-hour period.

When used properly, the vaginal sponge is highly effective in preventing pregnancy. However, sponges are less effective than some other well-known methods.

According to the FDA, 13 to 16 percent of women using the Today Sponge will become pregnant in a year of typical use, compared to 1-8 percent of women using oral contraceptives, Depo-Provera or an intrauterine device.

“The sponge doesn’t provide much protection against infections or sexually-transmitted diseases. Condoms are a much better barrier method,” Herbert said. “But the sponge offers some STD protection, and it’s better than nothing.”

“I would strongly recommend that people using a sponge also use a condom,” she said. “Using sponge and condom together would give close to 100 percent protection against both pregnancy and STDs.”

Production of the sponge was stopped in 1994 when the manufacturing plant – American Home Products, now Wyeth of Madison – was shown to have water contamination problems. Rather than spending the money to fix the problem, the company simply ceased production.

The sponge’s effectiveness and safety were never questioned.

Allendale Pharmaceuticals purchased the previous manufacturer’s rights to the sponge and began selling the product online and in Canada in March 2003. The online price for a single Today Sponge currently ranges from $3 to $3.50, depending upon quantity purchased.

Male condoms are much less expensive, available online for as little as 50 cents each or at Planned Parenthood offices for a dollar per dozen. Nevertheless, the sponge was popular among women because of their ability to control its use.

“The sponge is a little more accessible to many women, especially since it doesn’t require them to go in to see the doctor,” Herbert said. “This is important, because even though Planned Parenthood offers most medical services at low or no cost, not everyone qualifies for those services. Some women can’t afford to see a physician for their birth control.”

Today Sponges have not yet appeared on store shelves but will soon be widely available from a number of retailers.

Allendale plans an intensive U.S. advertising campaign and expects sales of 10 to 15 million sponges in the first year of availability.

For medical questions about the contraceptive sponge or other forms of birth control, find a local Planned Parenthood office by calling 800-230-PLAN or 800-230-7526.

Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest and most trusted voluntary reproductive health organization, operating more than 850 centers nationwide and providing medical services and sexuality education for millions of people each year.

The Center for Student Health & Counseling at Portland State is another excellent source of contraceptive information and can be contacted at 503-725-800.