For verging on 10 years now, I have suffered with recurrent UTIs (urinary tract infection) and honestly, the one thing I have gathered in those years is this: no one gives a shit about them.
Hear me out. A urinary tract infection is an infection in any part of your urinary system — your kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Most infections involve the lower urinary tract — the bladder and the urethra. Females are at a greater risk of UTIs than males because females typically have a shorter urethra, meaning that it is easier for bacteria to travel up it. 7 million females in the USA experience a UTI each year, and 26-44% will have a UTI recurrence in 6 months. Symptoms include: pain or burning when peeing, needing to pee more often or more urgently, blood in your urine, pain in your tummy or lower back, and increased or decreased body temperature. In severe cases, the bacteria from the urinary tract can travel up into the kidneys, which can then cause a kidney infection. This can affect the kidney function, and there is even a possibility of sepsis due to possible subsequent blood infection if left untreated. A relative of mine (we both suffer from UTI flare ups) recently suffered a 7 week long UTI, which developed into a whole-body bacterial infection which subsequently led to her hospitalisation. After suffering with UTIs for a long period of time, now the flare ups mean I can barely leave the toilet, I am in a lot of pain and feel a constant burning sensation. UTI flare ups stop me going to work and leaving the house. The mental health implication of UTIs absolutely cannot be understated either. I have suffered panic attacks, anxiety, and emotional breakdowns due to the physical implications of UTIs. These mental health issues tandem affect my relationships, my self-esteem, and my happiness.
Despite all of this, every trip to the doctors and appointment for a UTI has been treated as a mere inconvenience and a waste of time. Doctors have always been dismissive and rejecting of my symptoms and the impact that the UTIs are having on my life. I have sat in front of numerous doctors and nurses in tears, to be met with ‘have you tried wiping front to back?’, ‘maybe you should drink more water’, ‘just take some paracetamol’, as if I hadn’t been doing all of that ever since I experienced my first UTI. The constant question of ‘are you sure it isn’t anything else?’ has always been insulting and ridiculous, implying that I was neglecting my sexual health and mistaking these symptoms for something that was out of that doctor’s remit (they always encourage women to visit sexual health centres for testing rather than GP practices). Up until December 2021, my UTI flare ups were perhaps every 4 months and were normally treated with antibiotics, which was fine. However, recently I suffered from a UTI which lasted about 8 weeks. I was given about 4 rounds of different antibiotics, of which none worked. The fact that I now had a complicated UTI made no difference in the way I was treated going forwards. I recently received an appointment with a consultant, which is not until September this year, just for the initial consultation. I have recently had a scan on my kidneys, which has shown damage on one of the kidneys, but won’t receive advice until my initial appointment in 4 months time, treatment will take even longer.
I am completely sympathetic to the strained NHS system and backlog of patients from lockdown, but the fact that the system expects me to experience regular flare ups, knowing there is a complication, with no advice or support either, is frustrating and debilitating. I am still now suffering regular flare ups every 2-3 weeks and have to manage these on my own with any over-the-counter medication I can scrabble together (normally a combination of paracetamol, ibuprofen, cystitis relief sachets, cranberry juice, a shit load of water and hugs).
When I was coming to terms with the fact that I am now looking at a chronic UTI, I found an unbelievable number of women who were suffering in the same ways I am, and no one was doing anything about it. Specialist consultants within the NHS treat UTIs the same as doctors, a simple annoyance, and private healthcare for a urologist (specialist in the bladder system) is incredibly expensive and inaccessible for most women. Even if you do get a doctor or consultant who wants to help, testing and treatment guidelines for chronic urinary tract infections are inadequate or do not exist in most parts of the world. This means that doctors generally don’t have the resources or guidance they need to be able to support women. I found myself constantly asking: why aren’t people talking about this? Why are so many women suffering from the same thing and being left untreated? I wonder often if men suffered as much as women, whether we would have targeted antibiotics freely available within 24 hours of the start of your symptoms.
UTIs is just one example of the many medical conditions mostly or wholly experienced by women that are generally ignored and uncared for in the medical profession and neglected in scientific research alongside endometriosis, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), menstrual irregularities, menopause and any pregnancy issues. A study conducted into the U.S National Institutes of Health found that in nearly three-quarters of the cases where a disease afflicts primarily one gender, the funding pattern favours males, in that either the disease affects more women and is underfunded, or the disease affects more men and is overfunded. As recently as 1993, the FDA lifted its ban on women participating in clinical research, and with women being underrepresented in clinical trials for new medications, it is not surprising at all that women’s health is low on the list of scientific and medical priority, despite the fact that women make up nearly 50% of the population. Women’s health is underfunded worldwide, and globally, many women are suffering from a lack of autonomy over their bodies in medical decisions, a lack of access to healthcare services, and medical professionals and research that refuse to accept responsibility in ensuring women are properly looked after. In short and as previously stated, the medical world doesn’t give a shit about women’s health, and we need to do better.