The vaginal mesh implant scandal is one that has, so far, flown relatively quietly under the radar. But that looks set to change.
The controversial implants are used by medical professionals to treat stress incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse, both of which can occur after childbirth. They're inserted into the vagina from the abdomem, and are designed to support and treat damaged tissue.
Often, they're an alternative for more invasive surgery, and are currently regarded as a 'better option' by the medical industry. So what's the problem with them?
In recent years, reports have been increasingly surfacing about the safety and consquences of the implants. Back in April, BBC's Victoria Derbyshire reported that over 800 women were suing the NHS over the implants, following claims that the procedure has caused them irreparable damage, and horrendous side effects such as cutting, debilitating bleeding and pain, and the inability to have intercourse.
But they're not the only horrific side-effects. Some women report that the mesh implants protrude so much that they've even damaged their partner during sex (as well as their own anatomy). And others have admitted that they are now unable to work, while others cannot walk because of the pain inflicted. They've been called "barbaric", and some women have been left with chronic pain. Unfortunately, they're incredibly difficult to remove because tissue grows around the vaginal mesh, meaning that although women are told they're not permanent, they're often almost impossible to get rid of.Consultant urogynaecologist Dr Sohier Elneil told the BBC about the
affected patients she has seen. She said: "They become so incapacitated
that many of them are either walking by crutches or sitting in
wheelchairs and perhaps more dramatically so, they become unable to look
after their families."
But according to a 2012 government
report, more than 15,000 women have received the implants, according to
the BBC - despite calls from women that the procedure is horrendous.
The women suing are in particular levelling their criticism at huge
company Johnson and Johnson, who are one of the largest producers of the
And legal cases aren't just being mounted in the UK. It seems that sadly, women are suffering similar side effects all over the world too. There are huge court cases in the US, and recently a group of Australian women pursuing action have made the news, because of controversial and patronising suggestions put to them to solve the problem: anal sex.
According to The Guardian, emails between French gynaecologists discussing their cases revealed that some were suggesting anal intercourse as a viable alternative to vaginal sex.
One doctor wrote: "It is no less true that sodomy could be a good alternative!"
While another said, "I said to myself, there you go, for your next prolapse [patient], you talk to her about orgasms. OK! But also about fellatio, sodomy, the clitoris with or without G-spot etc. I am sure of one thing: that I would very quickly be treated like some kind of sex maniac (which, perhaps, I am) or a pervert, or an unhealthily curious person."
Sufferers have, understandably, been left appalled by the recommendation, with many revealing their reactions. One lady said, "The suggestion that women who are unable to have vaginal intercourse should practise anal instead completely devalues a woman's right to a full and healthy sex life as an active, empowered and fulfilled participant,"
"It suggests that a woman is nothing more than a receptacle to satisfy men and that ‘any hole will do'. I'm appalled that anyone, particularly a woman's treating medical practitioner, would be so thoughtless and arrogant as to suggest that anal sex is an adequate solution to sexual dysfunction."
While another wrote, "My husband and I were given advice [about] sexual activity. We were gobsmacked. The whole sexual deviation thing is supposed to make the pain and complications from mesh go away. I find this type of advice disgusting."
So what's being done about vaginal mesh?
Sling the Mesh, chaired by journalist Kath Samson, are a campaigning group attempting to get rid of vaginal mesh, and are making real progress.
Kath had the operation herself in 2015 to treat minor stress incontinence, and told the Independent that she was told the procedure was "a very simple and quick fix; perfect for busy working mums to be back
at their desks in a week, with the risks very much downplayed". However, she later reported feeling an intense burning and pain, alongside bruising.
On July 18th 2017, members of the group, alongside experts and survivors, headed to Parliament for a meeting concerning vaginal mesh implants, which was led by Labour MP Owen Smith (who is a big supporter of the campaign) - to generally positive results.
After hearing emotional and harrowing accounts of the trauma from sufferers, senior doctors advised that there should be a public inquiry into the vaginal mesh implants. Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, even commented that the mesh issue was similar to that of the thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, where a treatment was regularly prescribed without understanding the horrific side effects of it.
But things took a turn yet again on 25th July, when a report by NHS group Mesh Overnight Group was published - much to the dismay of Sling the Mesh. According to the BBC, the report, which was commissioned in 2014, never actually received funding in order to investigate the actual product, as many thought.
The report eventually only looked at the under-reporting of the procedure, patient leaflets, and how to deal with women who suffer from complications of the implants.
The NHS report commented that horrible side effects should be reported, but made no reference to how they could be avoided in the first place. It read, "Adverse events involving mesh as a medical device must be reported and clinicians must bear this responsibility."
"This should not be offered routinely for the first surgical intervention".
Criticism over the lack of action...
Disappointed that they are no further forward in the fight again vaginal mesh, Owen Smith, said, "Mesh-injured women will be deeply disappointed by the outcomes of the final NHS England review, which seems to have made little progress since its interim report came out over a year ago.
He also expressed the frustration that the opportunity to make a difference was not seized. He continued, "This was an opportunity for the NHS to take a lead and recommend a pause in the use of mesh until we know precisely how many women have been adversely affected by the product. Instead, they appear content to allow mesh to be widely used despite growing, international concerns about its potential ill effects.
"Many companies have already taken their mesh products off the market, that alone should tell us something is not right with these devices."
Kath Sansom, of Sling The Mesh, also revealed her bitter disappointment. She said, "They might as well park an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff and wait for women to fall in. They should have looked at product safety, not at ways to fix women once things have gone wrong.
"How can a major study of mesh not look at mesh safety. It is a whitewash."
Continuing the damning condemnation of the report, Kath said, "Nothing less than a full ban on pelvic mesh implants is acceptable now. When mesh goes wrong it is a personal tragedy for every woman and her family.
"There are black holes in data collection so nobody knows how many are suffering. Until there is a national register, nobody has a clue of how great this scandal is."
Overall, the NHS maintains that "The majority of women treated with mesh respond well to this treatment."
But even they acknowledge that there are issues, stating on their website, "However, the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has received reports of complications associated with vaginal meshes. These are mostly regarding persistent pain, sexual problems, mesh exposure through vaginal tissues and occasionally injury to nearby organs, such as the bladder or bowel."
Presumably, it will be several years before it becomes clear how many women this serious issue has affected, but hundreds of thousands of UK women alone have had a mesh impant. So until then, supporting groups campaigning against the vaginal mesh seems like a positive idea to prevent further unnecessary suffering.