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Labour ignores young women’s health at its peril

A new breakthrough in treatment for endometriosis provides a welcome opportunity for the opposition – if it recognises it.

By Emma Haslett

Last July the government published its much-anticipated Women’s Health Strategy, outlining plans to reform the UK’s healthcare system in such a way as to benefit a huge, but nonetheless marginalised, group: women.

The strategy was generally well-received – particularly the focus on endometriosis, a condition which affects one in ten women and is thought to cost the UK economy more than £8.2bn a year in the cost of treatment and loss of work. Yet still not much is known about the causes of endometriosis, a chronic condition in which womb lining-like tissue grows on organs outside the uterus (usually around the pelvis, but it has also been found on the heart and even the brain), then sheds each month during menstruation, causing intense pain, scarring and adhesions because the blood produced by it has no way to leave the body.

But yesterday – on International Women’s Day, no less – it was reported that researchers are testing what would be the first major breakthrough in endometriosis treatment in 40 years. A clinical trial will assess whether dichloroacetate, a drug currently licensed to treat various cancers and childhood metabolic disorders, helps to relieve the condition. It would be the first non-surgical, non-hormonal treatment for endometriosis. This is significant because surgery generally needs to be repeated as the endometriosis grows back; and many of its sufferers are of reproducing age, so they don’t want to use the most commonly prescribed treatment – hormonal contraceptives.

[See also: Screw International Women’s Day]

If this, and subsequent trials, work out, how long before the drug is approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), which recommends treatments to be used in the NHS? Given the government’s renewed focus on women’s health, you’d hope the process would be expedited. Then again, since the Women’s Health Review was published in July, more information has come to light about failures in maternity care at hospitals in East Kent, while 80 hospitals have been forced to withdraw the use of the most basic painkiller used in labour – gas and air – because poor ventilation in buildings means it puts staff at risk. Women’s health appears to be as low on the government’s priorities list as it has ever been.

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This weekend Anneliese Dodds, the shadow women and equalities secretary and Labour chairwoman, was asked why her party is targeting women between the ages of 45 and 65, many of whom have traditionally voted Conservative. “They are the ones who are often juggling looking after their kids, and often looking after parents as well,” she told the Guardian. “What I’m determined to do is to make sure that they have a voice.”

This focus on older women is laudable, but Labour should not forget about those in their 20s and 30s who are enduring endless NHS waiting lists for fertility and reproductive health treatments (for conditions like endometriosis), and whose ante- and post-natal care is being provided by exhausted, burnt-out staff in out-of-date facilities. Nor should the party forget about the one in four for whom childcare is, according to the campaign organisation Pregnant Then Screwed, now taking up an average of 75 per cent of their take-home pay. A manifesto pledge to build on the Women’s Health Strategy would not only entice younger female voters – it would give them a sense that Labour has something the Conservatives have so far failed to offer: empathy.

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[See also: Have the Conservatives done enough for women?]