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.
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, where she died weeks later.
In January 2017, the 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. It was this painful experience that inspired her to start the campaign.
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 media’s attention across the globe 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 a common attitude that anal intercourse is a viable alternative to vaginal sex for women in this awful situation.
One doctor wrote, ‘It is no less true that sodomy could be a good alternative!’
While another recounted, ‘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 these recommendations.
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 are not the only horrific side-effects of the implants. 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). Others have revealed that they are now unable to work and, for some sufferers, even walking has become a struggle.
Dr Elneil, who has worked with various mesh victims, 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, the 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,” she told us.
“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?
While it may be a slow process, Sling The Mesh are making real progress.
In May this year, Guardian journalist Hannah Devlin won Science Writer of the Year award for her story about 1 in 15 vaginal meshes need removing because of complications. In the same month, CBS 60 Minutes released a documentary showing plastic surgical mesh should never be implanted into humans because it’s unstable material.
For Kath, steps to prevent mesh casualties need to be put into motion as early as possible.
“I think girls need to be educated from a young age about doing pelvic floor exercises, maybe in secondary school PE classes even – without the boys of course who would laugh. But they need to understand how important it is to look after their core pelvic muscles. Also there needs to be better education around delivery.
“There is a lot of talk at the moment about forceps delivery causing problems of SUI and prolapse later. There needs to be better care after a woman has given birth all round. 50 years ago for example most mums gave birth in their local nursing home and stayed resting for 2 weeks., Now women are up and out and back home within a couple of days which puts unnecessary strain on their pelvic floors.”
“Surgeons must offer women natural tissue repairs instead of pushing mesh. And women need to know the terrible life changing risks and not b so quick to go under the knife for a mesh implant.”