A NUMBER of Irish teenagers who want to change their sex are being referred to a UK clinic for hormone blockers to stop puberty.
Three adolescents who have been diagnosed with gender identity disorder were recently sent by the HSE to the Tavistock Clinic in London for the treatment to stop the development of sexual organs.
The treatment helps deal with their mental distress and reduce the amount of surgery they may need later in life if they decide to opt for a sex-change operation as adults.
However, the parents of other teenagers are being forced to pay for the costly treatment abroad themselves and buy the drugs via the internet.
Their urgent needs were revealed by Vanessa Lacey, health and education officer for the support group Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), who said parents were often just trying to keep their child – trapped in the wrong body and traumatised by puberty – alive.
She said desperate parents were taking drastic measures because their children were suicidal and could not access hormone treatment here until they were 16.
Early discussions are under way to try to have the same treatment, which is reversible, delivered in one of Dublin's main children's hospitals.
The move comes as the HSE says it is expanding the services available to adults and teenagers who are transgender, a condition where someone is born with a male or female identity but feels inside that they are the opposite sex.
The rate of attempted suicide among people who feel they were born the wrong sex – who number around 50,000 in Ireland – is as high as 40pc as they struggle with the effects of the disorder, lack of treatment, stigma, possible family rejection and loss of employment.
A spokeswoman for the HSE said it had paid for around 27 sex-change operations for Irish people in the past five years.
Gender re-assignment surgery is not available in Ireland, and patients have had to travel to Britain or Belgium.
"We can confirm an average cost of an assessment and the associated surgical procedure of a transgender case abroad is circa €30,200," she said.
HSE director Philip Crowley said the executive was in the process of designing a proper treatment system.
Ms Lacey acknowledged Dr Crowley's positive steps, but said there was a long way to go to improve services and pointed out that people were waiting several months to get hormone treatment in St Columcille's Hospital in Dublin.
She said 160 transgender people were receiving hormone therapy there, three times the 2006 figure.
"Some transgender people seek hormone therapy in the UK and other EU countries and some buy hormones via the online black market," she said.
"Hormone treatments have been proven to alleviate stress and anxiety and are a medical necessity. It is vital that individuals can access these services in a safe and timely manner."
Transgender people also encounter legal difficulties because they cannot change their birth certificates – a ban that the High Court said five years ago was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
This has huge practical implications, and in some cases transgender Leaving Cert students who sat the exam under their new identity have not been able to get into college because it conflicts with the name on their birth certificate.