HRT and contraceptive shortages: what do they mean for women’s health?
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Tens of thousands of women have already been affected by HRT shortages, and now certain types of contraceptives are in short supply, too
It sounds like end-of-days stuff, doesn't it? Widespread medicine shortages. Panicked patients stockpiling packets of pills. Internet chemists hiking up prices to cash in on people's suffering. But this isn't some kind of dystopian future plucked from the pages of a sci-fi novel. It's an all-too real actuality for tens of thousands of women living in Britain in 2020.
Shortages of HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) first began in late 2018. Since then, ongoing availability issues have affected thousands of women across the UK, with some patients facing months of waiting for out-of-stock prescriptions. There has been little indication as to when the shortages might end, and leading doctors have called on the government to launch an investigation into the crisis. Now, if the HRT shortage wasn't bad enough, it seems that the problem has extended to contraceptive supplies, too.
Doctors have confirmed that there is a shortage affecting contraceptives, and have warned the government that the issue could lead to a rise in unplanned pregnancies, as well as impacting the physical and mental well-being of women and girls. So far, it's unclear what has caused this shortage. But if it isn't tackled quickly, thousands more women could find themselves affected.
First HRT, now contraceptives. These shortages have a tremendous impact on women's health, and yet very little seems to be happening to address the crisis. For over a year, women have had to deal with supply shortages of HRT medication, and have been expected just to get on with life and take suffering in their stride.
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Perhaps the shortages reflect a wider attitude towards women's health. In recent years, there has been much discussion surrounding gender biases in medical science, examining everything from inequalities in pain research to misconceptions about performing CPR on women. And many experts have concluded that women's health - especially when it comes to reproductive and gynaecological health - has been largely neglected.
Less than 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated to reproductive health, even though a third of all women will suffer from a reproductive or gynaecological health problem at some point during their lifetime. Researchers also conduct five times as many studies into erectile dysfunction as they do into premenstrual syndrome (PMS), despite the fact that the former affects an estimated 19% of men, and the latter, 90% of women. What's more, over 1.5 million women in the UK are thought to suffer from endometriosis - a condition often characterised by extremely painful periods - but it currently takes an average of 7.5 years for women to receive a diagnosis.
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These statistics should come as a shock, but sadly, for many women, this is hardly surprising. Menstruation and the menopause have long been treated as taboo, with an enduring culture of shame often forcing women and girls to suffer in silence.
There's perhaps no surer sign that we desperately need to talk about women's health than the news - announced last January - that women have been given incorrect advice on taking the combined contraceptive pill for over half a century. Contrary to popular belief, it turns out that there are no health risks of taking pills 'back-to-back', meaning that the customary seven-day pill breaks and monthly bleeds simply are not necessary. For 60 years, these withdrawal bleeds were seen as something of a necessary evil by many women - as inconvenient, painful and disruptive as 'regular' periods, and something to suffer through each month. With the updated guidelines showing this all to be unnecessary, however, it makes you wonder just how much misinformation women still receive about their own bodies.
Today's hormone shortages show that women are still kept in the dark when it comes to their own health. With no news as to when the HRT and contraceptive shortages might end, women of all ages are being left in limbo. Let's just hope it doesn't take 60 years to get an answer, this time.