Whatever happened to the sponge? The Today cervical sponge, one of the most popular female over-the-counter contraceptives in the United States, disappeared from stores earlier this year, mystifying users and many pharmacists.
The wait is almost over. The sponge will return this fall.
Whitehall-Robins Inc. voluntarily stopped making the contraceptive in January, after a 1993 U.S. Food and Drug Administration report questioned the cleanliness of its manufacturing facility in Hammonton, N.J.
The company has addressed the FDA's concerns and will resume making the sponges this month, Whitehall-Robins spokesman Karen Roberts said recently. Shipping will begin by the end of September, and sponges should be restocked in stores across the country by late fall.
"There never was a recall. We never had to pull the sponges or stop making them, nor were there any safety hazards with the Today sponge," Ms. Roberts said. "We had some discussion with the FDA to change our manufacturing procedures, and we voluntarily decided to suspend production until that was straightened out."
The sponge -- a spermicide-soaked polyurethane disc with a loop that is inserted to cover a woman's cervix -- was popular with women who didn't want or need a constant method of birth control.
When sources of the sponge dwindled, those women were left with two choices -- use condoms and a spermicide or use a prescription contraceptive, such as birth control pills or a diaphragm.
Ms. Roberts conceded that the company decision to quietly cease production caused consternation.
"We know it's been very difficult for consumers," she said. "When there is not a ready alternative it's a very big inconvenience. I know some consumers were thinking this was a capricious decision on our part, but it wasn't."
The Today sponge accounted for 29 percent of the over-the-counter contraceptives sold in the United States in 1993, according to Whitehall-Robins. Condoms are the most popular non-prescription contraceptive.
Prescription methods -- which include birth-control pills, diaphragms and long-acting drugs such as Norplant and Depo-Provera -- are the most popular forms of contraception by far overall.
The sponge that returns to the market will be identical to the one that left, Ms. Roberts said. A package of three will sell for about $4.50.
"The sponge will be exactly the same. The sponge was never the issue," she said.
The company expects to regain its market share, Ms. Roberts said. "Many women have called us saying they really didn't find any comfortable or convenient alternative."
The sponge is a barrier method of contraception (like condoms and the diaphragm) but can be in place up to 24 hours before needed, "allowing more spontaneity," Ms. Roberts said. Like the diaphragm, the sponge needs to remain in place for six hours after intercourse. It is removed with the loop.