I went on the pill around the time I started having sex. With all the confidence of a 17-year-old who had already upgraded from Dolly to Cleo Magazine, I walked into the 24-hour clinic and asked for the one that gave me no acne and no weight gain, please. The GP I was randomly assigned prescribed me Yasmin.
In 2008, it felt like every woman (or girl, or person who menstruates) was taking either Yasmin or its ‘sister’ drug, Yaz. Yasmin had been approved in Australia in 2001, while Yaz was approved in 2008. If there was a ‘trendy’ contraceptive pill in 2008, Yaz and Yasmin were it. By 2011, more than 200,000 Australian women were reportedly taking one of the two pills, both of which are made by Bayer. Sales skyrocketed past $8 billion worldwide.
These days, we associate those brand names with something much more sinister: blood clots, death, and a collective shrug from governments worldwide. But I didn’t know any of that when I went on the pill – and nor did any of my female friends, whose opinions and experiences filled in the knowledge gaps high school left blank. I thanked the GP, walked out with my script in hand, and never returned to his office again.
A few years later, in 2011, Yaz and Yasmin found themselves in the headlines, thanks to several independent studies finding a link between the contraceptive pills and blood clots. One Danish study of 1.2 million, published in the British Medical Journal, found that taking drospirenone – a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone used in both Yaz and Yasmin – increased the risk of blood clots between six and seven times.
As of 2013, there were at least 23 deaths linked to using Yaz and Yasmin, and according to Drug Watch, roughly 20,000 women have been injured after taking the pills, either via blood clots, gallbladder problems, heart attacks or strokes.
So why am I talking about this now? Because the risk of a blood clot from a drospirenone contraceptive pill is far, far greater than the risk from the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine. In fact, blood clots have been a known side effect of the pill for more than 60 years. Your blood clot risk when taking the pill is one in 2,500. The vaccine risk is roughly one in 250,000. That’s an astronomical difference – so where’s the bloody outrage?
Last week, Australia’s botched vaccine rollout was upended when an advisory body warned against people under 50 receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, due precisely to this blood clot risk. Two Aussies have already reported developing blood clots after being jabbed, while worldwide, there have been 18 reported deaths.
“It’s a bit like the aircraft taking off on the runway at the same time as you’re building the thing,” Professor Bruce Thompson, Dean of the School of Health Sciences at Swinburne University, told me.
“We’re just getting the evidence as this thing is unfolding. Normally this would be happening in the background. But the problem is, it’s front and centre. And it’s actually been almost like reality TV, because we’re seeing how the system works.”
He’s not saying we shouldn’t take the vaccine – quite the opposite. Now we’re aware of the risk, the medical community and the public know to look out for it. Symptoms include throbbing or cramping pain, swelling, redness, breathlessness, a sharp chest pain and coughing up blood, and in some cases have been known to develop up to two weeks after vaccination.
And granted, getting vaccinated against coronavirus is a little more newsworthy right now – life returning to normal and borders reopening more or less relies on it.
But given the risk of blood clots is several magnitudes higher for people taking the pill, wouldn’t it be nice if we treated it with some of the same urgency? Where’s the Morrison pressers? Where are the information campaigns? And why are people – particularly girls finding their agency in medical decisions for the first time in their lives – not being warned that blood clots are real, dangerous thing?
I polled some friends and colleagues and not one of them was warned about blood clots before going on the pill. One said it took her a few years to find out via other people. Another said she was never warned that smoking while on Yaz gave her an even higher risk of blood clots (in fact, doctors aren’t supposed to prescribe it to people who do smoke).
None of this is to warn you off getting the coronavirus vaccine when you’re (finally) offered it. Nor is it to scare you off the pill – because fun fact: getting pregnant also puts you at increased risk of blood clots. I’m not a doctor, and these are definitely conversations for someone with an ‘M.D.’ certificate hanging on their wall.
It’s just that one blood clot risk sparks huge government responses and endless media coverage. And the other, crickets.