Describing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as a “lifestyle drug” is ignorant, ill-informed and hugely depressing for all women who rely on it. But that is how some have responded to the current crisis in supply, suggesting women like me who use HRT should “just get on with it”. Britain is currently experiencing acute shortages of these drugs, which boost levels of hormones such as oestrogen as women get older and approach the menopause. HRT helps to alleviate the debilitating symptoms associated with menopause, including hot flushes and night sweats.
This is why it is so important for women to be able to tell their story and call attention to the life-changing difference HRT has made for them. The treatment has allowed many women to continue working, carry out their caring responsibilities, live life normally and escape the crippling anxiety that menopause can bring. But the continuing problems with HRT supply, particularly the oestrogen gel that many women use, has left many desperate, swapping products or turning to the internet to get supplies.
In response, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, recently announced he would be appointing an “HRT tsar” to address these shortages, emulating the position of Kate Bingham, the Covid vaccine chief. This is a welcome step – but the new appointee needs to crack on to solve the problems with supply immediately. I have no doubt they will have met manufacturers, but the issues we’re now seeing are neither new nor unexpected.
Even before the pandemic I was hearing from my constituents about inconsistencies in the supply of some forms of HRT. This left women having to chop and change prescriptions, trying to find what was still available. In the past few months this situation has become worse. Demand now way outstrips supply. A clandestine market has emerged, where women are trying to get hold of the life-changing drug. I am as guilty as anyone; I surreptitiously borrowed some from my colleague Carolyn Harris, whose private member’s bill last year called for greater menopause support, and gave us all hope and expectation.
So what do I want to see from the new tsar? Getting on with the job tomorrow would be a good start. Maria Caulfield, the MP for Lewes, told us that the supply of the main oestrogen gel used by many had doubled in the past year, but my local menopause nurse said the number of patients she had seen over the past 18 months had risen tenfold. It’s easy to see how demand has far outstripped supply. The government needs to resolve this market failure.
Women now have the confidence to ask their GPs for HRT. This is cause for celebration. I’m thrilled to be part of the group of amazing and determined women behind the Menopause Mandate, which seeks to empower women to tell their stories and be part of a menopause revolution. But if we can’t access our HRT, we all know we are not going to be able to function normally.
About 80% of women experience menopausal symptoms that would be alleviated by HRT. The prospect of millions of us mobilising should concern any government. So far, the response has lacked urgency and been marked by unacceptable delays in the promised changes to prescription charges. In April 2023, a single, annual prepayment of £18.70 for HRT prescriptions will be introduced – but this policy was first announced in October last year. Ministers need to sort out this delay quickly. Our coalition of menopause campaigners won’t go away quietly, so the new tsar had better be as determined as we are.