Doctors should give underage teenagers prescriptions for emergency contraceptives such as Plan B before they start having sex, the American Academy of Pediatrics says in a new policy statement. It says doctors should also counsel teens on the options for emergency birth control as part of an overall strategy to reduce teen pregnancy.
The academy is issuing the new position paper, published online Monday by the journal Pediatrics, as physicians and other health experts struggle to reduce the nation's high birthrate among adolescents.
Teen pregnancies in the United States have declined over the past 20 years, but the incidence is still the highest in the developed world, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The birthrate among Americans ages 15 to 19 dropped 44 percent between 1991 and 2010, to 34.3 births per 1,000 women, the CDC says.
Nearly 80 percent of teen pregnancies in the United States are unintended, occurring after unprotected sex or "underprotected" sex — when the contraceptive method of choice fails.
"That's tragic, really," said Dr. Cora Breuner of Seattle Children's Hospital, who helped write the policy statement. "We really can do better. By providing more education and improving access to contraception and more education about family planning, we can do better."
Emergency contraceptives, if taken within three to five days, can prevent pregnancy by stopping the ovary from releasing an egg or by stopping sperm from fertilizing an egg.
But emergency contraception pills are most effective when they're used within the first 24 hours after unprotected sex, Breuner said, and teens are more likely to use them if they're readily available.
They're sold under the brand names Plan B and Next Choice. Possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and an untimely menstrual cycle.
Females who are 17 or older can get the drugs over the counter, provided they can show proof of age and can cover the cost, which is often about $50. Younger teens require prescriptions, and some pharmacies require parental consent, according to the Emergency Contraception Website, a joint project of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals and Princeton University's Office of Population Research.