As the Covid-19 vaccine rollout takes place nationwide, concerns have been raised about possible side effects, particularly in the case of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. According to Pharmaceutical Technology, twenty million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been administered by 12th April 2021. Seventy-nine blood clot cases were reported by the end of March, and of those cases, nineteen people died. The Gov.uk website tells us that the risk of blood clotting after a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in people over fifty or with underlying medical issues is ‘extremely rare’: approximately 1 in every 100, 000 doses. The same is said for those in the 40 – 49 age bracket. For those between the ages of 18 – 39, this risk is doubled to 1 in every 50, 000 doses, which has led to under forties in the UK being offered an alternative vaccine to mitigate this risk. The European Medicines Agency subsequently investigated the risk of blood clotting and determined that AstraZeneca is ‘safe and effective’. Naturally, in a period of great upheaval, people will experience worries about the various emerging vaccines, but the minute risk of blood clotting, is no reason not to get vaccinated. Having a vaccination is an important and overwhelmingly beneficial act, and will help to protect yourself and others, despite the scaremongering regarding AstraZeneca from anti-vax groups.
However, I can’t help but notice the immediacy with which health officials and the government have responded to investigate the smallest risk of blood clotting. When we look at the risks that women take when on the combined contraceptive pill, we see that the risk is far greater. The NHS website says that the risk of a ‘serious’ side effect, like a blood clot, is ‘very low’. However, we are not given the statistic as to exactly how ‘low’ this risk is. Also included in the mix of ‘very low’ risk possible side effects are: breast cancer, stroke, heart attacks and cervical cancer. The risk of breast or cervical cancer is reduced to ‘normal’ again when off the pill for ten years. On top of this, there are the less serious, but also debilitating possible side effects of bleeding, mood changes, headaches and higher blood pressure. The NHS stresses the serious risks are ‘very low’ and counteract them with a list of advantages of taking the combined pill: it reduces the risk of ovarian, womb and colon cancer; it may protect against pelvic inflammatory disease and it may reduce the risk of fibroids, ovarian cysts and non-cancerous breast disease. How lucky we are.
Seeing as the NHS failed to state the exact risk of a blood clot when on the combined pill, I sought out the figures myself. According to Nursing Times, the risk of a blood clot is almost tripled when taking any contraceptive pill. For the lowest risk pills, those containing levonorgestrel, the risk is around six extra cases of blood clots for every 10, 000 women prescribed. For pills containing desogestrel, gestodene, drospirenone and cyproterone, which are less commonly prescribed, this risk was doubled. Why is it that the smaller risk of a blood clot from the AstraZeneca vaccine caused uproar, yet multiple contraceptive pills with potentially serious side effects have been in circulation for years? Women need access to safe contraceptives. We should be able to engage in sexual relationships freely without having to worry about health conditions. And alarmingly, its not just women who take the pill as a contraceptive who are at risk. The pill can also be prescribed to women suffering from PCOS or those with acne. Even if women opt for another form of contraceptive – such as the rod, injections, or the coil – they still have the potential of having to confront damaging side effects; we’ve all heard social media tales surrounding the painful insertion of the coil, for example.
It seems to me there is an attitude in society in which women are expected to endure and make do with whatever the medical world throws at us in order to have an element of autonomy over our own bodies. In an age where society is meant to be sexually liberated, I wonder how liberated we really are when we have to continue making the choice between unprotected sex or side effects which could affect our day-to-day lives. We are still waiting on a male pill: in 2019, the BBC wrote, ‘biologically, the challenge of creating a hormone-based pill for men is making sure that it doesn’t blunt sex drive or reduce erections.’ Ironically, lowered libido is a known side effect that can occur when taking the female contraceptive pill too: a ‘challenge’ for the male pill, but an expected inconvenience for women? Because what’s a lowered libido in comparison with the menagerie of side effects we’ve been subjected to?
What I hope to see in the coming years is for women’s sexual health to be treated with the same level of seriousness and urgency as the response to the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. If our health was treated with a fraction of the same concern, we would be able to lead happier, freer lives. Women should not have to choose between their reproductive health and bodily autonomy or take the risk of potentially serious side effects. When the pill was first made an option on the NHS in 1961, women were pleased to finally be granted some choice. Yet seventy years on and the right developments still have not been made. If we want true sexual liberation, our medical and pharmaceutical companies need to get their act together.
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