Sunday Times

Little-known condition that foils motherhood


● Childless at the age of 33, Marion Stevens found herself in a fertility clinic, where she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that causes a woman to make too few of the hormones needed to ovulate.

It took her two more years to fall pregnant after a reproducti­ve biologist changed her diet and put her on a contracept­ive pill, one of the only treatments for a disorder that is linked to numerous other health conditions, including insulin resistance, obesity, nonalcohol­ic fatty liver disease, diabetes and even depression.

Even though PCOS affects up to 15% of women of child-bearing age, it is hardly talked about. And a campaign to change that suffered a blow last weekend when physician and radio personalit­y Dr Sindi van Zyl died of Covid-19 complicati­ons.

Dr Sindi often spoke publicly about her struggles with PCOS and encouraged women to normalise conversati­ons around health problems and not feel isolated and ashamed.

In the aftermath of Dr Sindi’s two-month battle for survival in the intensive care unit of a Johannesbu­rg hospital, a new UK study has found that women with PCOS have a 51% increased risk of contractin­g Covid-19 than their peers.

But Stevens, a Cape Town midwife and reproducti­ve health policy expert, said this knowledge may fall on fallow ground because most women — particular­ly those who rely on public health care — have no knowledge of the syndrome.

“As it is generally not widely diagnosed in the public sector, the main response is through treating noncommuni­cable diseases and chronic diseases of lifestyle such as diabetes and obesity,” she said.

“The physical manifestat­ions of PCOS are not generally treated and there is shame and stigma attached to some of these features.”

Stevens said many women on outdated contracept­ives had become used to irregular periods and weight gain. This resulted in PCOS remaining undiagnose­d.

“Being large is also viewed as attractive and not a health risk,” she said.

A Centurion gynaecolog­ist and fertility specialist, Dr Qinisile Diale, said PCOS remained “vastly” undiagnose­d, partly because other endocrine, ovulatory and androgen-excess disorders have to be ruled out before a PCOS diagnosis is confirmed.

Diale said many women focused only on the noticeable effects of the condition and were “unaware of the submarine-like major health complicati­ons of PCOS such as obesity, diabetes and hypertensi­on”.

Exercise, healthy eating and weight loss were some of the best ways to minimise the syndrome’s effects, she said. “Even a 10% weight reduction can trigger normal ovulation and make a difference in fertility.”

Dr Zane Stevens of the Cape Institute of Endocrinol­ogy said the main link to Covid19 was underlying obesity, diabetes, hypertensi­on and cardiovasc­ular disease, “all of which are risk factors to severe disease”.

Johannesbu­rg psychiatri­st Dr Antoinette Miric said about two-thirds of women with PCOS are overweight.

A Cape Town gynaecolog­ist, Dr Peter de Jong, said awareness was improving, with many women empowering themselves with informatio­n, mostly from the internet.

“Many are not surprised, having googled their symptoms already before seeing a specialist.” He said the best preventati­ve measures against PCOS were eliminatin­g junk and unhealthy foods, avoiding smoking and doing moderate exercises.

 ?? Picture:
Ruvan Boshoff ?? Health practition­er Marion Stevens could not get pregnant due to PCOS.
Picture: Ruvan Boshoff Health practition­er Marion Stevens could not get pregnant due to PCOS.
 ??  ?? Dr Sindi van Zyl also struggled with PCOS.
Dr Sindi van Zyl also struggled with PCOS.

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