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Another reason to think twice about HRT

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By Bobbie Mullins

Ever since 2002, when the landmark Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) abruptly halted its study of combination hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after researchers found compelling evidence that women who take estrogen plus progestin are at increased risk of breast cancer, heart attacks and strokes, HRT has come under increased scrutiny.

Now, a follow-up study has revealed a new and even more alarming twist: Not only is HRT linked to breast cancer, it is also linked to more advanced forms of the disease that result in even more deaths. Data from the WHI study have also revealed that HRT is linked to ovarian and lung cancer.

Like many women, I stopped hormone replacement therapy—after taking Premarin for years—because of the health risks (although I’d read about the cancer link long before the WHI study came out). But then I learned that there’s another reason to think twice about HRT. Premarin and Prempro, two of the most widely prescribed estrogen replacement drugs, contain a surprising secret ingredient: animal suffering.

It sounds ridiculous—especially with so many options available to drug manufacturers—but Wyeth’s Premarin and Prempro are made from the estrogen-rich urine of pregnant horses. Every year, thousands of pregnant mares are confined to PMU (pregnant mares’ urine) farms in the U.S. and Canada. They are kept in stalls that are so small, the animals are unable to take more than a step or two in any direction. The cumbersome rubber urine-collection bags that mares must wear at all times chafe their legs and prevent them from lying down comfortably. Some farmers tie up horses so tightly that they cannot lie down at all in their narrow stalls.

And although equine veterinarians say that horses need daily exercise, some mares are forced to stay in their cramped stalls for months at a time.

Farmers are also encouraged to limit horses’ access to water so that the estrogen in their urine will become more concentrated. This practice causes dehydrated mares to fight—and sometimes become injured—as they struggle to drink during water-distribution times. It also causes serious health problems. One veterinarian who worked on PMU farms told U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors that he’d seen mares suffering from renal and liver problems as a result of insufficient drinking water.

The thousands of foals who are born on PMU farms each year fare no better than their mothers. Some are used to replace exhausted mares, many of whom have been confined to PMU farms for up to 20 years. But most of the remaining foals, along with the worn-out mares, are sold at auction, where they are bought by “kill buyers” for slaughterhouses.

Horse rescue groups would gladly take some of these foals. But according to the founders of one such group in Arizona, Wyeth actually forbids farm owners from giving or selling PMU horses to rescue organizations for fear of the bad publicity that results when the horses’ plight is discussed in the media.

Not surprisingly, the use of Premarin and Prempro has plummeted since WHI’s findings were first publicized. But some doctors continue to prescribe these drugs out of habit—and some women continue to take them for the same reason.

Fortunately, a growing number of physicians are now recommending alternative therapies to manage the symptoms of menopause. HRT drugs made from plant sources or synthetics, for example, more closely mimic the estrogen found in human ovaries. As I can attest, adopting healthy habits also helps. I stopped drinking wine and coffee and incorporated soy foods into my diet and was rarely bothered by hot flashes. Women can also combat hot flashes by exercising regularly, quitting smoking and eating low-fat foods—which is smart advice for anyone.

They say that menopause makes women do strange things. It doesn’t get much stranger than taking a pill made from animal urine. But I’m willing to bet that most women, if they knew the truth about Premarin, would find it a bitter pill to swallow.

Bobbie Mullins lives in Norfolk, Va. She wrote this for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;


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