February 14, 2013 | The Editors

Learning from contraceptives

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s talk about romance. Or at least sex.

“We talk about this all the time on our teams,” says Maggie Kilbourne-Brook, a  program officer in our Technology Solutions Global Program who in more than 25 years at PATH has helped develop and test reproductive health technologies that include the Woman’s Condom and the SILCS diaphragm. “What do women want? What do men want? What are they willing to do to protect themselves, even in the heat of the moment? What will make protected sex more fun?”

With questions like these at the top of her mind, Maggie’s the perfect person for the Valentine’s Day edition of our blog series, Good Question. So we asked her: what have you learned from testing contraceptives?

Maggie: There are at least two parts to that question—what have we learned when we’ve tested contraceptives products and what do we learn from women and men who test our prototypes?

Hand holding the Woman's Condom.
The Woman’s Condom. Photo: PATH/Glenn Austin.

We learned lots about the importance of small things during the design development of our Woman’s Condom. For example, when we started using foam as a retention feature to hold the pouch in the vagina, it started out as a foam cap at the end of the pouch. But as prototypes evolved women kept asking to make the foam smaller and smaller to get it out of the way.

Eventually, we settled on four small foam shapes that hold the pouch in the vagina. We even compared various types of foam using an electron microscope to find out which type of cell structure has the greatest likelihood of sticking to the vaginal wall. And we got it right. The foam shapes on the outside of the Woman’s Condom pouch work. In clinical studies women and their partners like that the pouch doesn’t move or make noise.

Rigors of diaphragm testing

I’ve worked with a lot of women and researchers who evaluated prototypes of the SILCS diaphragm to make it easy to use and comfortable for both partners. The neat thing about this one-size-fits-most device is that a woman won’t need a fitting exam to figure out which size she should wear.

Hand holding the SILCS diaphragm.
The SILCS diaphragm. Photo: PATH/Glenn Austin.

Testing a barrier device that rests inside the vagina, we have to do some interesting studies. For the barrier effectiveness study of the SILCS plus contraceptive gel, women agreed to have sex with the device in place, then return to the clinic within two hours so a clinician could test fluid in the vagina and on the cervical side of the diaphragm to see whether any forwardly motile sperm crossed the barrier. Our clinical partner, CONRAD, implemented this study at their research sites.

You can imagine it takes a special woman—and man—to be willing participate in a study like this one.

Take-home message

Through these projects, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to family planning providers and women in many countries share intimate feedback about the products, as well as about their lives and relationships. And I’ve learned that women’s dreams aren’t that different in different countries, no matter what their economic group or age. They want a loving relationship with their partner. They want their children to be healthy. And they also want to be protected.

More information

•    Our work in woman-initiated protection
•    Our work in reproductive health
•    CONRAD website

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