While the vaginal mesh scandal flew under the radar for an astonishing amount of time, the media is finally bringing this important issue - and its victims - to the forefront of mainstream media.
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 abdomen, used as an alternative for more invasive surgery and touted as the ‘better option’ by the medical industry.
But there’s a darker side to the mesh story, with many women left in excruciating pain, suffering long-term health problems. And in some tragic cases, these have been fatal.
The vaginal mesh victims
The vaginal mesh scandal claimed its first life in 2017. Canadian woman Chrissy Brajcic, who actively campaigned against the implants, died from sepsis from her own implant, after suffering problems for four years. The 42-year-old mum-of-two had set up a campaign to raise awareness of implant issues, after experiencing them herself after giving birth in 2013.
Despite having the mesh removed due to nerve damage, Chrissy experienced continual urinary tract infections and was readmitted to hospital this October, before passing away from sepsis in October 2017.
In January, BBC reported that over 100,000 women have had the mesh fitted – and new hospital figures obtained by Sky News suggest almost 10 per cent of women suffer complications following their treatment. A much higher figure than the original 1-3 per cent reported.
Urogynaecologist Sohier Elneil told Sky News, “It’s a huge problem. I think it’s bigger than Thalidomide, because the numbers of those affected are much more. And if we look at the problem globally then it’s worse than the metal-on-metal hips and the PIP scandal as well.”
For its victims, the negative effects of vaginal mesh have been life-changing. “You spend your day thinking that the best way to get through the day would be to drug yourself up,”said Stella Channing, who was fitted with a mesh implant seven years ago in Australia. “You take pain killers and then take sleeping tablets, so that you can try and escape the raw burning pain and the ongoing nerve pain that makes you writhe in agony.”
Kath Samson, founder of Sling The Mesh, a group campaigning to ban vaginal mesh, argues that the problem is largely down to a ‘one for all’ mentality. “For incontinence mesh slings in the UK the surgeon societies are saying it is an effective treatment for ‘appropriately selected women’, but we say who is an appropriately selected woman?” Kath told us. “We have women of all ages, sizes, races, some smoke some do not – there is no way of telling who will suffer. It truly is Russian roulette. How can you pick who is a good candidate?”
Kath had the operation herself in 2015 to treat minor stress incontinence, and 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.
The backlash against vaginal mesh
Back in April 2017, 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.
More than 15,000 women have received the implants, according to the BBC, despite negative reports of the procedure. The women suing are levelling their criticism in particular at huge company Johnson and Johnson, who are one of the largest producers of the implants.
And cases aren’t just mounting in the UK. Huge court cases have been taking place across the world. In Australia, the Australian Pelvic Mesh Support Group caught the world’s media’s attention after they released a series of statements from women, expressing their outrage over how they have been treated by doctors regarding their complaints.
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.’
Women have, understandably, been left appalled by the recommendation, with many revealing their reactions.
One mesh sufferer wrote, ‘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 exactly are the effects of the vaginal mesh implants?
Pain and cutting seem not to be the only horrific side-effects of the implants, unfortunately. 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.
Dr 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
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.
For Stella her mesh implants are a life sentence – and she can’t see how her issues will be ever be resolved. “Most people want an answer as to what the prognosis is. People see ill health as, are you going to get better, or are you going to die? They can prepare for both. For the mesh injured, it is a life of non-stop chronic, debilitating pain, that does not go, does not heal and most likely will not bring imminent death, just a lingering of life that is so hard to bear.”
Could a new vaginal mesh material be the answer?
Some positive news on the vaginal mesh scandal hit headlines recently, after a new type of mesh material was successfully trialled and quickly hailed as the ‘answer’ to the mesh crisis by the media. Scientists at the University of Sheffield claimed that, following seven years of research, using polyurethane rather than polypropylene would limit the procedure’s damaging side effects. They claim that the new material has a “likeness to human tissue”.
However, many have reservations about this new development, including Kath of Sling The Mesh, who strongly disputes that this is any kind of vaginal mesh ‘breakthrough’.
“Researchers at the University of Sheffield say they have created a new mesh – what a lot of rubbish! They are still using plastic! This time though it is not polypropylene it is polyeurethane. Still plastic.
“They are spinning it with collagen. All they have done so far is test it in chicken embryos. How on earth can they celebrate a new mesh based on some weak short term trials on chicken embryos. How on earth can that equate to being OK in a vagina?”
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.