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Why a menopause tsar won’t solve the HRT crisis

The last thing women need is somebody with a fancy title outlining the problem – they need an urgent answer.

By Carolyn Harris

For generations it has been a taboo subject. At best, whispered about behind closed doors but more often completely ignored – an unspoken secret that women didn’t dare to share.

But over the past few years there has been an uprising. Women aren’t willing to suffer in silence any longer. They are talking openly about their menopause experiences – sharing their stories and seeking the support they need to ease their symptoms.

Fifty-one per cent of the population are women. That means 51 per cent of us will – at some point – directly experience the menopause.  

Most people, when they hear the word menopause, will think of the obvious symptoms – the hot flushes, night sweats and brain fog. But the menopause is so much more: anxiety, joint pain, weight gain, insomnia, vaginal dryness, loss of libido. There are, in fact, around 40, sometimes debilitating, symptoms that women may suffer.

For many, there is hope, in the form of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), but that is not without its own hurdles. Training in medical schools, and beyond, is woefully lacking when it comes to the menopause, meaning that healthcare professionals often don’t have the relevant knowledge to correctly diagnose and treat women. 

Recent coverage in the mainstream media and the perseverance of some powerful campaigners have given women the courage to demand HRT. So much so, in fact, that we are now seeing the same number of HRT prescriptions being issued per month that we previously saw in a whole year. This has led to the next barrier: product availability.

Quite simply, supply is not meeting demand on some key products, leaving women afraid of how they will fulfil their prescriptions and, in some cases, resorting to desperate measures. There have been stories on the news, for instance, of women finding each online and meeting in car parks to swap medication.

Some might say that this was inevitable with the sudden increase in demand, but I would argue that it is bad planning on the part of both the suppliers and the government. Not all suppliers are affected, and some have ample stock in their warehouses ready to distribute. But bureaucracy around licensing in many areas across the country means that is exactly where these products remain – on warehouse shelves – while women beg and borrow to access the treatment they desperately need.

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The government’s announcement last weekend on the introduction of a “menopause tsar”, sounds, in principle, like a positive move to solve the issue. But I fear it is a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that the government knows it is, in part, responsible for.

The last thing women need is somebody with a fancy title outlining the problem. They know what the problem is already. What they need is a solution – and an urgent one at that. 

From bitter experience, women know that the government’s commitments when it comes to their health aren’t always met with timely action – for example, the promise in October 2021 to introduce a single annual prescription charge for HRT for women in England has now been delayed until April 2023.

This announcement alone has caused outrage among women. Financial constraints should not be a barrier to women being able to access the treatment they need.

But women are no longer prepared to just sit back and take it. Last month, I joined a host of other menopause campaigners in launching the Menopause Mandate. Among its aims, the mandate is calling on the government to bring forward the introduction of the annual prescription. The petition has reached over 13,000 signatures so far and many women who sign are also sharing their, often heart-wrenching, stories of the impact that menopause has had on their lives and on those closest to them.

We are hearing from women who have given up their careers, from women whose relationships have collapsed, and from women who are suffering from some of the most severe physical and mental health issues. On top of this we must not ignore the fact that the highest rate of suicide among women is in the age group 45 to 54, the ages when most women start to experience symptoms of the perimenopause and menopause.

So, while the government’s proposed “menopause tsar” has the potential to introduce much-needed change, it may, once again, just be more warm words to try to placate the growing band of menopausal women who feel angry and let down by the government’s untrustworthy promises. I hope I am proved wrong. I hope that this is a sign that the government has finally had their light bulb moment and understood that this cannot go on, because women’s health matters. And I hope that this is just the start of a change that sees support and services for women prioritised and taken seriously.

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