From the Journals

Delayed first contraception use raises unwanted pregnancy risk

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Tap into trends to reduce teen pregnancy

Despite a declining teen birth rate in the last several decades, the United States has the highest teen birth rate among industrialized nations. While many factors play into this rate, we know that, in many European countries with low teen birth rates, adolescents often initiate contraceptive methods before their sexual debut. As we often tell teenagers, they can become pregnant the “first time,” which makes initiating contraception early – and preferably before sexual debut – an important strategy to preventing unplanned pregnancy.

This study identifies the trends over time in the initiation of contraception in relationship to sexual debut and examines its effects on unplanned teen pregnancy. Understanding these trends can help clinicians more effectively target teen pregnancy.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that rates of timely contraceptive initiation have increased since 1970. Sadly, this rise is largely because of condom use. Use of effective forms of contraception – especially long-acting reversible forms of contraception (LARC), such as the IUD or the etonogestrel rod – still remain low at the time of sexual debut. While we continue to encourage LARCs as first line for pregnancy prevention, many patients are not getting the message about these highly effective, safe methods. Unsurprisingly, there are significant differences based on race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status on timely initiation of contraceptive methods, especially highly effective methods. This supports prior research which has shown significant barriers in access to contraception to these groups, which leads to higher rates of unplanned pregnancies.

Dr. Kelly Curran, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City

Dr. Kelly Curran

While more and more teen women are using a contraceptive method at the time of their sexual debut, the use of effective and highly effective methods remains low, especially in racial and ethnic minorities and patients with low socioeconomic status. Delayed initiation of contraception leads to significantly higher rates of unplanned pregnancy. Clinicians should be talking to teens regularly about contraception – even when they are not sexually active – and encourage initiation of effective methods before a teen’s sexual debut. I think it will be important to understand barriers to initiating effective contraception before sexual debut from the perspective of clinicians, patients, and their families.

Dr. Kelly Curran, MD, specializes in adolescent medicine at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City. She is a member of the Pediatric News editorial advisory board and was asked to comment on the study by Murray Horwitz et al. Dr. Curran had no relevant financial disclosures.



Young women who delay starting contraception when they start sexual activity are at increased risk of unwanted pregnancy, according to data from a cross-sectional study of more than 26,000 women in the United States.

Truncated photo of a pregnant woman's belly Jupiterimages/thinkstock

Unintended pregnancy in the United States is associated with delayed prenatal care, premature birth, and low birth weight and remains more common among African American and Hispanic women than among white women, and it also is more common among low-income women than among high income women, wrote Mara E. Murray Horwitz, MD, of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute in Boston and her colleagues.

“Reducing unintended pregnancy and the associated socioeconomic disparities is a national public health priority,” they wrote.

In a study published in Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from four cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth between 2002 and 2015. They examined self-reported responses from 26,359 women aged 15-44 years with sexual debuts during 1970-2014, including the dates of sexual debut, initiation of contraceptives, and rates of unwanted pregnancy. Timely contraceptive initiation was defined as use within a month of starting sexual activity.

Overall, one in five women reported delayed initiation of contraception. This delay was significantly associated with an increased unwanted pregnancy risk within 3 months of starting sexual activity, compared with timely use of contraception (adjusted risk ratio, 3.7). The average age of sexual debut was 17 years.

When the researchers examined subgroups, they found that one in four respondents who were African American, Hispanic, or low income reported delayed contraceptive initiation.

No association with unwanted pregnancy was found between effective versus less effective contraception methods. Timely contraceptive use increased during the study period from less than 10% in the 1970s to more than 25% in the 2000s, but condoms accounted for most of this increase. Use of other methods including long-acting reversible and short-acting hormonal options was low, especially among African American, Hispanic, and low-income women, Dr. Murray Horwitz and her colleagues noted.

The study was limited by several factors including the use of self-reports, lack of data on the exact start of contraceptive initiation, and the lack of association between contraceptive method and unwanted pregnancy, the researchers noted. However, the findings suggest that clinicians can help by intervening with young patients and educating them about early adoption of pregnancy prevention strategies.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Murray Horwitz was supported by an award from the NIH and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. Another researcher received support from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute to provide mentorship for the study. The remaining researcher had no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Murray Horwitz M et al. Pediatrics. 2019;143(2):e20182463.

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