ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan meets the women waiting to get their HRT as supply chains struggle to provide
It seems to me there's been a bit of a sea change recently around the menopause. Women are talking about it; high profile celebrities, like Davina McCall have campaigned for better care and there have been brilliant documentaries made about how women have been suffering in silence.
Menopause doesn't feel like a shameful word anymore and it seems, I hope, its effects are being taken seriously. This could explain the huge rise in demand for hormone replacement therapies. Over the past five years demand has doubled, in December last year half a million prescriptions were issued, meaning spending on HRT is now at £7m. If HRT was a lipstick you would say business is booming.There is, however, a flip side to this because it seems production of the treatment hasn't kept up with demand. At the moment there is a huge shortage of some HRT products, most notably a gel called Oestrogel. I have spoken to numerous pharmacies who are turning women away with prescriptions for it because they don't have any. There are alternatives, but now they are also suffering shortages.
I spoke to 55-year-old Millie Kendall, who started the menopause five years ago. She has spent years trying to find the right combination of medication, something that works and something that alleviates her crippling symptoms including sleeplessness and anxiety.
Millie uses Oestrogel and hasn't been able to get any from her pharmacy. So desperate, as her symptoms began to return, she found some online and bought two bottles. It's not something she would normally do and is simply crossing her fingers it is bona fide medication. She is now panicking the supply issues won't have resolved themselves by the time she needs more. She also realises she is fortunate enough to be able to afford it, something many other women might not be able to do. Her friends are swapping notes and Facebook is apparently awash with advice on where women can find some.
This all sounds rather jovial and fun but actually women are really suffering. The effects of the menopause, at their worst, can be debilitating. Some women are already feeling vulnerable because of the process and a lack of medication is now exacerbating that.
The Chair of the British Menopause Society Haitham Hamoda points out that women have had to endure problems with supply of their medication for years.
Manufacturers and suppliers appear to have been letting women down regularly. Why is that? Why aren't people shouting about this and demanding production increases, to reflect the culture shift going on around the menopause?
Maria Caulfield is the Conservative minister leading a taskforce looking into improving care for menopausal women. She has been a high-profile campaigner on the issue and told me she would be speaking to manufacturers and suppliers about the problem in the coming weeks. But why wait a few weeks?
Women are suffering now. Her answer was to repeat that she would be speaking to them but given thousands of women's frustrations, and her apparent commitment to ensuring the stigma of menopause is stamped out, I would question why on earth she isn't banging their door down.
Besins Healthcare, suppliers of Oestrogel, told ITV News: "All new deliveries into the country are being used immediately. We are working with our wholesalers to co-ordinate supplies across the country.
"Increasing the manufacturing capacity takes time and we are doing everything we can to manage, increase and expedite supplies to retail pharmacies across the country through thewholesalers.
"Besins Healthcare understands how the menopause impacts women’s wellbeing and is acutely aware of the concerns women are having if they are not able to fulfil their Oestrogel prescription."
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society recognises that not being able to access medication causes anxiety and stress and recommends that women try alternative treatments.
The problem is the women I've spoken to are adamant they simply don't want to do that. For many it's taken years to find the right combination and changing medication risks more side effects. I feel strongly that women are in a Catch-22 situation; if they sit and wait for Oestrogel to come back on the market they risk suffering horrible symptoms, but if they try alternatives they risk side effects and further symptoms anyway.It is time the supply of HRT is taken seriously and sorted out. As I said earlier, if we were talking about lipstick or, dare I say it, Viagra would we be in the same position?