Updated: Apr 18
By Aisha Mahal
Image via The Independent
Content Warning: this article contains a graphic description of a hospital procedure.
Between the start of vaccinations in December 2020 and March 2021, 30 out of 5,000,000 recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine were diagnosed with blood clots. Since then it has been proven to be completely safe, but not before its distribution was immediately paused in 17 countries.
Compare this to the fact that up to 16 in every 10,000 women on birth control pills will experience a blood clot. This is more than 50 times higher than the AstraZeneca vaccine. Only 30 out of 5,000,000 people vaccinated with AstraZenecaeca had to experience a blood clot for it to be rapidly and intensely investigated. Yet more than 100 million women around the globe are currently prescribed the combined pill, often with little to no proper warning given about the true health risks.
Every single day, women on the combined pill are expected to face this serious health risk, revealing huge and dangerous disparities between how seriously the healthcare of women is taken in relation to the healthcare of the overall population.
This is not to dismiss the fact that it was important for the AstraZeneca vaccine to be investigated when it was linked to blood clots. This was indeed highly necessary. However, the contraceptive pill should have been treated with this same urgency decades ago when it first became commonly administered.
The pill has been proven to have a direct causal link to blood clots and strokes. One pill — which is called Yasmin in the UK or Yaz in the US — has been the subject of hundreds of thousands of lawsuits for causing blood clots. In the US in 2015 alone, 10,000 blood clot claims were settled in court, costing over $2 billion in payouts to victims. The blood clots are caused by a manufactured hormone called drospirenone. Blood clots have caused death for girls as young as 14 and 15 due to the fact they can cause deep-vein thrombosis. Instead of banning these pills, the FDA just changed their labels to warn of the increased risk of blood clots, which are often underestimated in how dangerous they can truly be. Blood clots can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Yet, the pill is continually prescribed instead of funding more research and development into a safer option.
Despite what many people, especially men, assume, women cannot simply go off the pill when they are faced with this terrifying reality. For one contraceptive pill is the most effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Alongside preventing pregnancy, there are countless other reasons why many women cannot stop taking the pill.
One of these is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal condition that affects up to 26% of women worldwide. I, myself, was diagnosed with PCOS at the age of 17 after presenting with various symptoms such as irregular periods and chronic acne. I was immediately prescribed the pill and it changed my life. Without it, I would not be able to manage my PCOS. However, this does not deny the fact that the side-effects of the pill are both terrifying and sometimes unbearable. Fearing a blood clot and deep vein thrombosis every time I board an airplane (flying being the most likely time when a blood clot will form) is a scary reality. Moreover, I have struggled with mood swings, heavy periods, bloating and headaches all while taking the pill. These are common side effects that nearly all of my other female friends have experienced.
A woman who I interviewed recounted the ‘traumatizing’ experience she suffered when her contraceptive pill caused blood clotting. Her experience makes it terrifyingly clear that blood clots are something to take very, very seriously.
Having been on the pill since her very first period, she was moved onto a stronger pill after her previous one stopped working as effectively. This stronger pill gave her such heavy periods and such serious period pains that she could not leave the house during her on-flow days. During finals week, her period flow was so heavy and painful that she had to leave her university dorm and return home. The pain was so “excruciating” that she was screaming all night until the morning when she discovered huge blood clots of 8 to 10 centimeters in diameter. She describes thinking that she was pregnant and giving birth since the pain was so extreme —“out of this world” were her exact words. At the hospital, she kept fainting due to having lost so much blood and her gynecologist performed a procedure similar to abortion to remove all the blood clots using a vacuum-like tool. She had to take a COVID test, spend all night in the hospital, and go under full anesthetic. Since then she has been on the copper coil instead of the pill.
This experience was the “most traumatizing experience” of her life, especially since it occurred during COVID so she awoke completely alone in the hospital following the procedure. She found it “horrid,” “gross,” and “disturbing” knowing that all-male doctors had performed such an intimate procedure concerning her body. She couldn’t begin to explain how the feeling of having something inside of her but not really knowing what it was felt.
This is just one story among thousands that really drives home the horrific and dangerous side effects that come with the contraceptive pill. Yet, blood clots are normalized as a side-effect of the pill — despite the absolute, and not to forget life-threatening, trauma they can cause.
So why exactly are women expected to tolerate all these risks — from inconvenient headaches to life-threatening blood clots? Why does one medicine get halted immediately for causing blood clots while another gets prescribed to girls as young as thirteen?
There is a significant issue in how women’s health is not taken as seriously as it should be. This is blatant medical gender bias at work. Women’s health is still seen as a ‘niche’ despite the fact it involves 50% of the population, and this is not a problem just in sexual health. Women are three times more likely than males to develop rheumatoid arthritis and four times more likely to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system. Women make up two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s disease, and are three times more likely to have a heart attack than men. Women are at least twice as likely to suffer chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic Lyme disease.
Yet, the female experience of these conditions is under-researched. Male symptomatic profiles are nearly always used in diagnoses because women are often excluded from research, leading to a late or under-diagnosis. Indeed, on average, women are diagnosed with heart disease seven to ten years later than men. Moreover, because women were excluded from clinical trials until the 1990s, 80% of pain medication has only been tested on men. This becomes all the more absurd when you learn that women make up 70% of chronic pain patients. And the reason for excluding female test subjects? Their menstrual cycles could potentially corrupt trial results. If that were so, surely testing medications on women is extremely necessary since all the women who will take the medication may indeed menstruate?
Money and time must be invested in further research into and scientific development of a safer form of contraception. More generally, medical gender bias has to be eliminated. Women cannot be suffering because of age-old patriarchal skeletons in the medical world’s closet.
Moreover, there must be more time spent on openly educating women about their contraceptive choices. The woman who I interviewed for this article wished that she had not been so “let down” by the education system concerning things like this. Our only resource for sex education can no longer be Google or our other female friends who have gone through terrifying experiences.
There also needs to be a cultural shift away from the assumption that contraception is solely a woman’s responsibility. Male contraceptives should be explored as well as educating everyone in society on the true impacts of the little round pills women take every day.
Disclaimer: The AstraZeneca vaccine has now been confirmed as safe and there is no causal link to blood clots. Please get vaccinated.
Written by Health and Lifestyle Editor Aisha Mahal