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Camels, yams and intestines: the conception of contraception

18 November 2019

According to legend, Arab nomads inserted small stones in the uteruses of their camels to prevent pregnancy during long journeys.  These stones would irritate the camel’s womb and stop fertilised eggs from growing.

But when Arab gynecologists hear this story, they ask a question: ‘Have you ever tried to put a stone in a camel’s uterus?’

While camel uterus stones may be a myth, animals have played a vital role in the development of contraception (the prevention of pregnancy).

Some of the first condoms used in the 1800s were made from animals, including lamb or pig intestines.

Intrauterine devices (IUDs) are small contraceptive devices inserted into the uterus (with or without a medicine). In 1909, a Polish doctor published the first paper on the successful use of an IUD.  This IUD was created from the guts of a silkworm.

Plants also had an important role in the development of contraceptives. The oral contraception pill (OCP), known as ‘the pill’, has an ingredient derived from a yam. Wild yams contain diosgenin, a plant-based estrogen that can be converted to progesterone, one of the main hormones in the pill.  In the 1950s, a Mexico City-based company created the first synthetic progesterone from a wild Mexican yam called barbasco.

Thankfully, in 2019 we have many safe and efficacious contraceptive options. We do not recommend using stones, silkworm guts, lamb intestines, or yams for contraception!

Many contraceptive products available in Australia are assessed for safety, quality and efficacy and then approved by the TGA.  We assess and approve two main categories of contraception: medicines (which includes prescription and over-the-counter), and medical devices (which includes a wide range of products that are not medicines, but do have a physical effect on the body).  We do not assess contraceptive procedures.

Contraceptive medicines include emergency contraception, known as ‘the morning after pill’, which is available as an over-the-counter medicine (meaning no script is needed).  Non-emergency oral contraceptives such as the OCP are only available with a prescription from a medical professional. There are a number of different OCP available. There are also contraceptive injections and contraceptive medicines which are inserted into the vagina or cervix.

Several contraceptives are considered a medical device. Condoms are classified by the TGA as a class IIb medical device, while IUDs are a class III medical device. Find out more about medical device regulation on our website.

Through history, contraceptives have been predominately developed for women. But what about contraceptives for males?  Male contraceptive pills, injections and gels have been trialled in recent years, though are not yet available on the Australian market.

One of the male contraceptives that is widely available is the condom. At the TGA, we test the quality of condoms in our laboratories using a range of methods. We use the Condom Inflation Test to test the effects of pressure, and we use the Water Tightness Test to test for holes. We also test how products like lube may affect the efficacy of a condom. To be able to obtain a statistically significant result from our testing, we assess 315+ condoms of the same brand/type per test.

The Condom Inflation Test

The Condom Inflation Test

Did you know that condoms have an expiry date?  There is a reminder about the safe and correct use of condoms on our website.  If you ignore the expiry date on a condom, you could face a burst case scenario.

Find out more about Australia’s broad range of TGA approved contraceptive methods: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/contraception-options