Shortage in menopause medicine forcing women to swap drugs with strangers

A shortage of certain hormone replacement therapy medicines is leading desperate women to swap the drugs with strangers in car parks or buy them on forums, according to campaigners.

Julie Macken says HRT is crucial for her to function normally.

She runs her own business, Neve's Bees, making and selling natural beeswax cosmetics.

Without the medication, she feels tired, low, and unable to concentrate on her work.

So it came as a shock when she went to pick up her latest prescription and was told her pharmacy was unable to fill it.

"A friend of mine mentioned a few weeks ago that she was struggling to get some HRT gel and had to have the patch instead," Ms Macken told Sky News.

"But I didn't really think anything of it. It was only when I went to our local pharmacist here that they said 'Oh, sorry, we've run out.' And I had about a day left by that point.

"I was really starting to panic thinking I'm going to feel rubbish if I don't get hold of this stuff pretty soon.

"I was starting to feel low. After a couple of days of not having it, I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't work efficiently. People were relying on me and I was just letting them down."

She ended up taking time off work and driving to four different villages to get the medication she needed.

"All of the pharmacies I went into - I spoke to either the assistant or the pharmacist themselves. And they just said no," Ms Macken added.

"Many of them were even on back order. One chemist I went to said even if they had any they wouldn't have been able to give it to me because they had so many people on the waiting list."

'We've got a problem and it's spreading like wildfire'

Ms Macken is one of thousands of women affected by a shortage of certain HRT products - which manufacturers, and the government, say is caused by a surge in demand coupled with supply problems of raw ingredients and delays caused by the pandemic.

The drugs are used to control symptoms of menopause, which can be severe and range from fatigue to insomnia and depression as well as a variety of physical symptoms.

Campaigners say some women become so debilitated without their regular medication that they are resorting to buying drugs on forums or social media sites or even meeting strangers to trade medicines.

"We've got a problem here and it's spreading like wildfire, and it hasn't been going on for weeks. I've known about this for about four months now. And it's getting worse," says Claire Hattrick, who runs the menopause support group

"Women are going and trading in car parks saying, 'Oh well, I'll give you a pump of this if I can have some HRT patches.' It shouldn't be like that."

Shortage and cost an 'absolute disgrace'

The current supply issues come as an extra blow for menopausal women after the government recently delayed plans to reduce the cost of HRT prescriptions in England until at least 2023.

Ms Hattrick says that coupled with the cost of living crisis, some women are becoming desperate.

"You know what's going to happen? Mum is going to go without her HRT - she's not going to not have the heating on. She's going to look after her family. It's good old mum that holds her family together and she's going to be on her knees. It's absolutely disgraceful."

But doctors are warning women against resorting to unorthodox methods to try and get some HRT.

Paula Briggs, a consultant in sexual and reproductive health at Liverpool Women's Hospital, says taking medication not prescribed for you could be dangerous.

"It's never good to be using other people's medication," Dr Briggs told Sky News.

"It should be prescribed by a clinician, whether that's a doctor, a nurse or a pharmacist, and it should be properly monitored.

"We communicate with the pharmaceutical companies frequently and we're being reassured that actually, the products will be fully available in the near future.

"The British Menopause Society have published guidance about what are similar doses [of alternative medications] and I think that's a better way of managing the current problem than for women to be purchasing drugs in forums, from friends or using other people's medication."

The Department of Health and Social Care told Sky News: "We are aware of supply issues that are affecting a limited number of HRT products. However, most HRT products, including alternatives to those experiencing supply issues, are available.

"We are working closely with suppliers and stakeholders to resolve these issues as quickly as possible and to ensure the NHS is informed on a regular basis."