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Why hrt is the new thalidomide

MagazineDecember 2003 (Vol. 14 Issue 9)Why hrt is the new thalidomide

After years of being the odd one out against the likes of Dr John Studd, Theresa Gorman, MP, and broadcaster Dr Miriam Stoppard, Britain's greatest apologists for hormone replacement therapy, I am pleased to witness that HRT is finally on the downward slide

After years of being the odd one out against the likes of Dr John Studd, Theresa Gorman, MP, and broadcaster Dr Miriam Stoppard, Britain's greatest apologists for hormone replacement therapy, I am pleased to witness that HRT is finally on the downward slide.

Just a few weeks ago, no less than the chairman of the German Commission on the Safety of Medicines - the equivalent of our Health Minister or the head of the US Food and Drug Administration - called HRT 'the new thalidomide'.

Professor Bruno Muller-Oerlinghausen described HRT as a 'national and international tragedy' in the wake of the latest study, published in The Lancet last August, showing without a doubt that it has caused thousands of deaths.

The research in question, called the 'Million Women Study', by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK, tracked more than a million British women aged 50-64 from 1996-2001. It found unequivocally that HRT doubles the risk of breast cancer and raises the risk of heart attacks, blood clots and strokes. The study's bald conclusion was that HRT had been responsible for 20,000 cases of breast cancer over the past 10 years alone - many of them fatal (Lancet, 2003; 362: 419-27).

But the big surprise of the MRC study concerned which type of HRT proved the most dangerous. For years, medicine has known that 'unopposed' therapy - oestrogen-alone preparations - worsens endometrial (womb lining) cancer. Doctors have relentlessly hammered on about the 'protective' effects of combination therapy - preparations with both oestrogen and progestogens, or synthetic progesterone. However, in the study, it was these combined drugs that held the greatest risk. After five years, it showed that 1 in 166 women may get cancer and, after 10 years, 1 in 50. This explodes the very platform on which the therapy is based - as a long-term therapy to prevent osteoporosis.

And no matter what type of HRT you use, or mode of delivery - pills, patches, continuous or sequential regimes, or even tibolone (Livial), the supposedly safer alternative - your cancer risk increases after a single year of use.

After The Lancet results were in, the German authorities did the responsible thing and told doctors that the weight of evidence is now against HRT. Treatment is now restricted to women with particularly severe symptoms and given at the lowest possible dosages for the shortest period of time. German women are abandoning the therapy in droves.

You would have thought that this was strong meat for the UK and US to follow suit. However, Gordon Duff, chairman of the Committee of Safety of Medicines, has been sanguine on the subject. In an advisory for doctors, sent the day after the study was published, he wrote that the benefits (what benefits?) continue to outweigh the risks. As he put it: 'The results of the Million Women Study do not necessitate any urgent changes to women's treatment.' [italics mine].

Menopause is a condition that can largely be controlled by simple dietary changes and vitamin supplements.

Every doctor who continues to prescribe HRT to healthy women going through a normal change of life has blood on his hands. And so does every government bureaucrat who continues to hem and haw over the cancer connection.

Lynne McTaggart


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