Fertility apps: The ‘next wave’ in solving global family planning crisis

Every year, lack of access to contraception causes about 85 million unplanned pregnancies and a host of negative associated health outcomes. One expert said this global health crisis can be mitigated with apps that allow women to understand and track their fertility.

The challenge to provide universal contraceptive access is an old problem, but there are new challenges. A few were created by the Trump administration, which reinstated – and expanded – the Global Gag Rule, freezing government funding to many foreign NGOs providing family planning, maternal and child health, nutrition and other critical health services.

Earlier this month, Trump’s administration also decided to cut government funding to the U.N. Population Fund, which provides family planning, sexual and reproductive health assistance and other services to 9 million people in humanitarian settings.

Global family planning expert Leslie Heyer is one of many advocates who warns that the funding cuts will have devastating consequences for women and their families, especially in the developing world. When women don’t have the ability to plan their pregnancies, she said, they and their unborn babies suffer higher physical and mental health risks, higher risk of abuse, and lower education levels for themselves and for their children.

“It keeps people in poverty, it puts people in poverty,” Heyer said in an interview with Humanosphere. “There are all these issues that come with unplanned pregnancy. They end up affecting everyone in the family, and they end up affecting everyone in the community.”

Heyer is the founder of Cycle Technologies, a provider of family-planning tools to women worldwide. Some of Cycle’s methods – like CycleBeads and Dot – provide forms of contraception requiring nothing more than a mobile phone.

Heyer said these digital options can be accessible, cost-effective alternatives to traditional contraceptive methods, which are often reliant on fragile supply systems and subjected to restrictions under policymakers.

“Mobile technology’s becoming sort of the next wave for fertility awareness methods, we’re able to go more directly to the end user,” Heyer said. “So in some ways, we’re sort of circumventing those more traditional programs.”

She explained that fertility awareness apps are now more accurate than ever, thanks to sophisticated algorithms that deliver information that women can use to understand when they are fertile and to plan their pregnancies when they are ready. Such methods have been approved as modern contraceptive methods by the World Health Organization.

Cycle Technologies officials said their products have been used by more than 6 million women in more than 60 countries.

Considering the millions of the world’s women still without access to contraception, however, Heyer said the loss of support from Washington is “definitely worrisome.” Mobile technology can make a huge dent in the family planning service gap, she said, but it can’t be the only solution. Many women need other methods of contraception – IUDs, injectables or condoms – based on their individual needs.

The first step, she added, is to get women to the forefront of the conversation about contraceptive access.

“Unfortunately, women are sort of the punching bag in a political movement here,” she said. “We need to be leading the process and the decisions about contraceptive access … rather than allowing these decisions to be made by a bunch of men that, quite frankly, may not have a full appreciation of these issues.”

Published April 13, 2017 on Humanosphere

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