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Staff writer

Low-dose oral contraceptives, commonly known as “the pill,” made their first appearance at clinics and pharmacies Thursday, nine years after they were first submitted for Health and Welfare Ministry approval.

Women with a doctor’s prescription are now able to buy 11 types of contraceptive pills made by 10 pharmaceutical companies. Purchases, however, are not covered by health insurance.

One package of 28 pills — one pill is taken each day — costs an average of about 3,000 yen. If fees for medical examinations are added, users will pay an estimated 50,000 yen to 60,000 yen a year for the pill.

The Health and Welfare Ministry approved sales and distribution of the pill in June, ending unusually long deliberations on the contraceptives that began when nine pharmaceutical companies filed applications for their approval in 1990 and 1991.

In the Japan Family Planning Association’s clinic in Tokyo’s Ichigaya district, 15 women who were previously using medium-dosage pills had appointments for a prescription.

Pills with high and medium dosages have long been approved for treatment of menstrual disorders, and an estimated 200,000 women in Japan have been using them for contraceptive purposes.

Recalling the nausea she felt when she began taking higher-dose pills four years ago, Kei Abe from Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward welcomed the arrival of the low-dose alternative.

“Every woman is different,” the 21-year-old said. “The more choices we have, the better.”

Using estrogen and progesterone, the pill suppresses ovulation and, if taken correctly, is highly effective in preventing pregnancy. It boasts a 0.1 percent failure rate in the United States.

Approval of the pill was delayed partly because of concerns over the pill’s side effects, which include a risk of thrombosis, and concerns that lifting the ban might decrease the use of condoms, indirectly increasing the spread of AIDS.

But experts say lack of activism among women is also to blame.

“Few women have called the clinic about information on the low-dosage pill,” complained Kunio Kitamura, director of the Japan Family Planning Association’s clinic.

“There have been far more questions from doctors and the medical community on explaining the pill to patients,” he said.

Oral contraceptives in their first form were first approved in the United States in 1960, and contraceptive pills of varying dosages are now used by some 90 million users worldwide.

Pill makers have jointly established the Oral Contraceptive Information Center with recorded information on the pill. For more information, call the center at (03) 3814-1809 in Tokyo or (06) 6266-2488 in Osaka.

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