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Should COVID-19 studies record women's menstrual changes?

In light of this year's International Day of Women in STEM, Sarah explores the lack of gender equality in healthcare

By Sarah Dalton, SciTech Editor

In light of this year's International Day of Women in STEM, Sarah explores the lack of gender equality in healthcare

Numerous studies have previously provided evidence to believe that equality in healthcare has not been achieved, and women’s health issues have been traditionally ignored or under-researched.

The case of ‘The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practise’ highlights how the medical view of the male body as the ‘normal body’ and the female body existing solely to display reproductive organs has persisted well into the modern era. Just one look at the endless list of possible side effects inside birth control leaflets can highlight the astonishing lack of definitive scientific research surrounding female health products.

This is no surprise when you consider the research gap: less than 2.5 per cent of publicly funded research is dedicated to reproductive health despite a third of women in the UK suffering from a gynaecological health issue in their life. There is five times more research into erectile dysfunction (which affects approximately 19 per cent of men) than premenstrual syndrome (affecting 90 per cent of women).

Living in a global pandemic, this lack of medical research surrounding female bodies has taken on a whole new challenge. Despite approximately half of those receiving the COVID-19 vaccine being female, none of the vaccine trials to date have collected data on menstrual changes.

Appalled by this lack of information, researchers from the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh and Oxford have joined together to evaluate the existing anecdotal and scientific literature on menstrual cycle changes in the COVID-19 pandemic. Their conclusion: all large scale COVID-19 studies and clinical trials should include female bodies and collect data on menstrual changes.

'Women deserve to know more about why these menstrual changes have happened'

During their comprehensive review of the current literature, researchers found only 12 studies worldwide that had reported on menstrual changes in relation to the pandemic in general, none of which included vaccine trials. Anecdotes which stormed the internet and data from the MHRA’s Yellow Card scheme for adverse drug reactions, suggested that many people who menstruate have experienced short term disruptions to their cycles due to catching COVID-19 itself, COVID-19 vaccines or other pandemic-related factors such as stress and behaviour change.

Although the researchers stressed that these changes are unlikely to have serious or lasting effects on health or fertility, they emphasised that further research into the effects of COVID-19 on women’s menstrual health is urgently needed, and future COVID-19 recovery plans must consider women’s health.

Period poverty in Bristol

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Dr Gemma Sharp, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Epidemiology in the MCR Integrative Epidemiology Unit and lead author of the study, noted that, ‘More recent anecdotal reports of menstrual changes after vaccination for COVID-19 have fuelled vaccine hesitancy or refusal […] Women deserve to know more about why these menstrual changes have happened.’

She added: ‘Without robust menstrual data collection and analysis, menstrual problems will continue to be occult and undermanaged in society.’

Featured Image: Unsplash/Monika Kozub

Have you ever experienced inequality in the health care system as a woman?