The UK is currently facing a hormone replacement therapy (HRT) shortage. Could it have been avoided?
Hello, I’m Tomini and this is the Sensemaker from Tortoise.
One story every day to make sense of the world.
Today, the UK’s crisis in hormone replacement therapy.
“It’s Friday the 28th of July and it is no ordinary Friday because tonight, the first person will be voted out of the Big Brother house.”Davina McCall
That’s Davina McCall in an episode of Big Brother in the year 2000.
She went on to host it for another 10 years but today, the model turned TV presenter and game show host is using her voice for something very different.
“There are currently 13 million of us all in the same boat. I was advised not to talk about it. That it was ageing and a bit unsavoury. But clearly that didn’t work because I am sat here talking to you.”Davina McCall
She campaigns to raise awareness about the menopause and perimenopause.
In a Channel 4 documentary called Sex, Myths and the Menopause, which aired just over a year ago, Davina McCall shone a spotlight on the realities for women going through the menopause.
It was watched by more than two million people and led to 22,000 GPs and nurses volunteering to complete a six-hour menopause course.
“Do you know I couldn’t believe the reaction after the last documentary went out it. It was like a tsunami, an outpouring. I have never had a reaction like that from anything I have ever, ever done before.”Davina McCall
Going through the menopause herself left Davina McCall depressed, unable to sleep, and fearing she had a brain tumour or Alzheimer’s.
Symptoms that were all alleviated when she began taking HRT, or, hormone replacement therapy.
But there’s currently an HRT shortage in the UK and HRT suppliers and the government are partly blaming Davina McCall for increasing awareness around the medication.
In January 2022 around 520,000 prescriptions were issued for HRT in the UK.
That’s 50 per cent more than a year earlier… and more than double the 240,000 issued in January 2017.
So, is the ‘Davina Effect’ really to blame for HRT shortages in the UK?
For many years there were concerns about the possible side effects of HRT – including an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
In 2015, NICE, the NHS medicines watchdog, recommended GPs should offer women HRT but make them aware of the benefits and risks.
Here’s Jo Marsden, a Consultant Breast Surgeon, speaking to the British Menopause Society.
“The risk of breast cancer with use of HRT is in fact overall quite small, unfortunately lay public and many healthcare professionals have a heightened anxiety about this because I think breast cancer is a common condition and people naturally are concerned about it.”Jo Marsden, Consultant Breast Surgeon
As a result there’s been a big increase in the number of women seeking HRT.
“We have to have this medication available and to not get certain things I just am absolutely speechless. There are just no words for this. I’m not sure who is responsible but this needs changing. Very quickly too.”ITV News
This clip was a woman speaking to ITV News in 2019.
The shortage of HRT medication is a crisis that’s been a long time coming. Hundreds of thousands of women relied on it … well before Davina McCall’s documentary aired.
In 2019, the then Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said that he knew how distressing shortages of drugs like HRT could be.
He said the government would “always act” to ensure there would be an adequate supply of medicine.
“For tens of thousands of women HRT offers a lifeline from crippling menopausal symptoms but a national shortage means that many are facing Christmas without their vital medication”
In early 2020, pharmacists reported shortages of 30 brands of HRT medicine.
And the government was aware of this.
So, what’s happened now?
There are shortages of other drugs too.
“Channel 4 news however can reveal that it’s not just HRT thats in short supply. Some vital and lifesaving medications are also hard to come by”
There have been problems getting hold of some painkillers, anti-bi-otics and epilepsy drugs because of manufacturing issues and shortages of raw ingredients.
In 2019 Tortoise reported the NHS was so keen to control the costs of HRT medicines that pharmaceutical companies sold their products elsewhere at better margins.
Which is one reason why the UK may be affected by the shortages now, when the EU and the US aren’t.
The Secretary of State for Health, Sajid Javid, has created an HRT taskforce to sort out the supply problems. He’s also developing a new women’s health strategy, including support for menopause care which is expected to be published later this year.
But for the million or so women like Davina McCall who are suffering from the consequences of the HRT shortage right now, it may feel like too little too late.
Today’s story was written by Phoebe Davis and mixed by Imy Harper.