Among the 800 British Columbians who have approached lawyer Tony Merchant about being part of a class-action lawsuit against the makers of the controversial birth control pill Yasmin is the family of Salmon Arm woman Rhonda Bergen, who died suddenly last winter after five weeks on the drug.
Yasmin and Yaz, made by pharmaceutical giant Bayer, are once again in the spotlight following the release of a Health Canada document linking the drug to the deaths of at least 23 women between 2007 and Feb. 28 of this year. According to the doctors and pharmacists behind the documents, teenage girls as young as 14 died suddenly from blood clots (also known as venous thromboembolism, or VTE) after being on the pill, usually for just a short period of time. A further 600 cases reported "adverse reactions" from taking the drug.
Lee Holden says her sister, Rhonda Bergen, 36, is one of the 23 women whose deaths were investigated by Health Canada. Bergen was already at a higher risk of VTE because she was obese and had polycystic ovary syndrome, factors the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada identified in a new position statement on hormonal contraceptives earlier this year.
Bergen began to have difficulty breathing just over a month after starting Yasmin. Her condition worsened over the next few days, and she was eventually rushed to hospital where she died. A coroners report paid for by Bergen's family pointed to Yasmin as a factor in her death.
"She never should have been prescribed Yasmin," Holden says.
Sometimes called "next-generation" birth control pills, Yaz and Yasmin are the only contraceptives on the market that contain a synthetic progestin called drospirenone. In 2011, Health Canada released a report saying Yasmin and Yaz pose up to three times the risk of getting a blood clot. However, they say that risk is "very small", about 1.5 to 3 women in 10,000 per year. They also acknowledge that when combined with smoking, being overweight, or having a history of blood clots, the risk of getting VTE on Yas or Yasmin goes up.
Tony Merchant, who is representing thousands of B.C. and Alberta women in a class-action lawsuit against Bayer, says 23 deaths connected to Yasmin is just the tip of the iceberg. He believes many more women are dying from complications with the drug, but the problem is their families never find out what really killed them. Unlike Bergen's family, many don't get autopsies done. Others aren't aware of the litigation against Bayer, Merchant says.
But it's not just deaths. Merchant says 1,500 women have approached him with reports of "serious side effects" from taking Yaz or Yasmin, though none of the allegations have been proven in court.
"Blood clots that haven't killed you, but you have to be on blood thinners the rest of your life, or you've had a stroke," Merchant says, adding many have had to have their gall bladders removed as well. "People are seriously debilitated from the effects."
He says 800 British Columbians who have endured the lethal or life-changing effects of Yasmin have come on board, including Bergen's family. He hopes even more women will join the lawsuit. "There's a huge benefit to them coming forward, the collectivity in their stories shows there's public involvement," Merchant says.
A class-action lawsuit by the Siskinds law firm was recently certified in Ontario, and Merchant says that bodes well for the one he's launching on behalf of B.C. and Calgary women.
The lawsuit will seek remuneration for those debilitated but alive, and justice for those who died.
"For some women it's about compensation, but for the people whose daughters died, it's about fairness, recognition, and changing how companies market their products."
Holden says it was a no-brainer to join the lawsuit.
"It helps with my own personal grieving process," she says. "Our goal is justice, we want to get this off the shelves."
"We don't care about the money, we just want people to know," she says. "Any finances we get would go toward the fight."
She's glad to see the issue is gaining attention, and says Health Canada's investigation is a step in the right direction.
"Truly, I was exhilarated to hear the report. It means there's more research being done and there's more belief in the detrimental effects (of Yasmin)."
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at email@example.com or call (250)309-5230. Follow on Twitter @charhelston
Rhonda Bergen during her dream vacation in the United Kingdom.