MARIELLA FROSTRUP: HRT crisis that has left millions without drugs is a national disgrace

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Earlier this week I met two girlfriends for supper in central London. As I approached our table I could hear the topic of conversation was the ongoing HRT crisis.

One of them had just been in a pharmacy. The woman in front of her was shuddering, shaking and crying, with great dark circles under her eyes.

‘I haven’t slept for a week,’ she wept to the pharmacist. ‘You have to help me. How can you not fulfil a medical prescription? I need my HRT.’

The pharmacist said, helplessly and apologetically, that they were trying to sort out the problem.

This is a scenario which I imagine is being played out in pharmacies and GP surgeries up and down the country. In my opinion, not only is the shortage of HRT a national disaster, but also a national disgrace.

We have a new Government which has managed to push through Brexit. I suggest that the political and divisive struggle of our conscious uncoupling from the EU pales in comparison to the fallout that can be expected from the lack of available oestrogen patches.

For Boris Johnson, the combined force of Brussels opposition and Remainers will be as nothing in the face of a nation of frustrated, furious femmes.

He has a massive hurdle facing him in the form of hundreds of thousands of women, many of whom are quite literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Even more outrageously, we’ve known about the shortages for months; they probably started as far back as 2018, and were certainly well documented by last summer.

The lack of clarity around the reasons for the supply issues suggests that perhaps they weren’t prioritised as much as you might hope.

I have a very personal sympathy, both for the symptoms of the menopause and the struggle to find the right balance of medication. When I started to experience the insomnia, forgetfulness and anxiety caused by my fluctuating hormones, back in 2011, I suffered for two years before seeking expert medical help.

I know that I was fortunate; I didn’t have the hot flushes which can genuinely ruin women’s lives, or spiral into the depression which can lead to suicidal thoughts in the most extreme cases. Even so, it took some months of trial and error before we found the right balance and method of delivery for me, and that’s when everything was freely available.

Fast forward to 2020, and I have a covert stash of the precious oestrogen gel which prevents those symptoms from flooding back. Six months ago I started to notice the news stories and rumours of shortages, and I’m afraid that I stockpiled, just in case it became hard to obtain.

I’m genuinely loath to admit this, as it’s probably quite easy to find out my location, and for stealthy women-only gangs (black is so flattering!) to break into my home and steal what is probably my most valuable possession!

As one girlfriend pointed out over the edamame beans and salmon, that six-month supply might well have a street value higher than any designer drug.

If it sounds as though I’m joking, bear in mind that women are going to quite extraordinary extremes to obtain their medication. I have a friend who confesses to having spent hours trawling the internet, trying to purchase the elusive oestrogen patches via any website possible, however dodgy-looking they are.

Others are signing disclaimers saying that they’d die without HRT. It’s also common to hear of women spending thousands travelling to other countries where it’s possible to buy the products over the counter.

A story in this paper last month explored this new phenomenon of HRT tourism, which I find quite frightening, not least because HRT needs prescribing and monitoring by someone with a knowledge of your medical background. As with any medication, there are potential side-effects and risks.

Isn’t it hugely ironic that just as the menopause became an acceptable topic of conversation, the solution to its symptoms became unavailable? It’s not a hysteria or an imagined condition, or even something to joke about. For centuries, the menopause has been represented by world-weary men nudging each other over a pint and a bit of sniggering about the ill temper of ‘her indoors’. But thousands of women in their forties and fifties rely on HRT. It’s not a placebo, it’s a necessity.

Now that it’s become a topic for dinner parties, how on earth has the one proven solution been removed from our grasp?

Would this happen if men went through the menopause and needed to take HRT? Absolutely not. As ever, the health of women has been sidelined, and I believe we quite seriously need a women’s health committee. I welcome the call for a working group to address the current supply problems; a permanent and dedicated task force is long overdue.

We’ve been ignored and overlooked for too long.

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