Why the vaginal mesh scandal could be ‘bigger than thalidomide’

For the past eight years, Carolyn Tyrer has been in constant pain. The 58-year-old art teacher and mother-of-two feels like her pelvic area is being “ripped apart” whenever she walks. Her long-time hobbies of horse riding and gardening have faded to distant memories, while her relationship with her husband has changed irrevocably, leaving her self-confidence in tatters.

It is all down to a surgical procedure she had back in 2009 to cure her mild stress incontinence. Like thousands of women, Tyrer was advised to have a vaginal mesh implant, known as TVT (tension-free vaginal tape surgery) where a piece of mesh is placed into the vagina to combat pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence – issues that typically affect women years after childbirth.

More than 92,000 women had vaginal mesh implants between 2007 and 2015 in England, and about one in 11 is said to have complications. More than 800 of these women are now taking legal action against the NHS and mesh manufacturers. Tyrer is one of these women.

“The surgery ruined my life,” she says simply. “The mesh eroded in my vagina. I could feel a sharp piece of plastic poking through. It was excruciating. I suffered chronic UTIs. I couldn’t be intimate with my husband because it hurt both me and him. At times I was in so much pain I could barely sit down.” For eight years, Tyrer was sent back and forth between hospitals and consultants. She had a partial removal of the implant, but it was only this month that she had the mesh fully removed. She estimates that the endless appointments have cost her £10,000 as she was forced to seek help privately, as well as a loss in earnings.

Just two weeks have passed since she had the removal, and she hopes desperately that the pain will never come back, but many of the effects are already permanent. “My relationship with my husband has really suffered – it’s been very hard for him to understand what level of pain I’m in. I’m a different person to how I used to be pre-surgery. I’m more withdrawn, insular and less confident at times. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to how I used to be.

“I just wish I had never, ever had it done. I would rather have coped with that very minor problem of stress incontinence than this. If I’d known even one of these possible risks of the surgery, there is no way I would have had it done. I’m furious I was never told this could happen.”

Tyrer is not the only woman who is filled with anger about vaginal mesh implants. She is part of a campaign group called Sling the Mesh, which has more than 3,000 members who all say they have suffered from significant health issues after the mesh has eroded inside them, causing lacerations and nerve damage.

Hundreds of them are in legal battles against the providers of the mesh and the NHS, who have advised thousands of women to have the procedure instead of more traditional surgeries such as colposuspension, where the front wall of the vagina is lifted to stop incontinence.

These women have called on the Government to ban the procedure, which is still being offered on the NHS. Pressure has come from MPs including Jon Ashworth, the shadow health minister, as well as Sarah Wollaston, who is a Conservative MP, former GP and chair of the health select committee. Jackie Doyle-Price, the under-secretary of state for health, last week announced that while new guidance on the mesh would be published later this year (earlier than its scheduled release in 2019), an inquiry would not be launched.

Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, is hopeful that it will lead to a complete overhaul of the way that new devices and procedures are checked and monitored before being rolled out.

“I call this the new thalidomide scandal because thalidomide changed drug regulation overnight, and I hope this case will do the same with device regulation,” he says.

“Given the substantial scale and size of the problem, it’s important we learn we need to do something very differently. You can’t correct the past but you can listen to these women’s voices. There’s a need to apologise and to use this as a pivotal learning point to change the system.”

He believes that mesh implants were introduced two decades ago without clinical trial evidence looking at the long-term effects, and that there should be much tougher regulations on devices such as the implant. In the US, vaginal mesh has been seen as high-risk for nearly 10 years, and some studies have suggested that subsequent pain and perforation can affect up to 75 per cent of women.

“I’m so disappointed in myself for not doing more research before having the implant,” says Lynne Sharman. The retired account manager, 62, had an implant put in six years ago; a year later, the pain was so severe that she needed a partial removal, and 10 months after that, a full removal was ordered.

Four years have passed, but she is still in constant pain. “I had the procedure because I wanted to be able to play with my grandchildren without leaks,” says Sharman. “I wanted to join them on the trampoline. Now I can’t even bend down to pick them up. My retired years as a grandma have been completely ruined. I wish I’d never had this, and had just dealt with the incontinence.

“I can’t even drive down the road any more; I’ve lost my independence. I’ve suffered with depression, and soon after having it removed, I was still in so much pain that I thought about taking my life.”

Like Tyrer, she cannot have sex with her husband anymore as it is so painful. After being happily married for almost five decades, her relationship with John, a retired investment director, has changed irrevocably because of the implant. They can no longer share household chores – her husband does everything, as even the simplest of tasks leaves Sharman in excessive amounts of pain.

“I feel badly let down by the medical profession,” she says. “There was information available when the mesh was fitted but I wasn’t told about it – the only risk I was told of was about general anaesthetic and that there was a really slight risk of the bladder being perforated. I was told I’d walk out and within six weeks I’d be a picture of health.”

Many women say they feel their voices weren’t listened to by professionals. A male doctor told Sharman he would have to refer her to a woman as he “didn’t understand women’s issues”, and Tyrer was told to “get used to it”.

“I kept being told it was in my head, that I should put up with it,” she says. Some medical professionals told her there were dozens of women coping with erosion. “No one took it seriously.”

She now hopes that the debate in Parliament will change things. “I obviously want all of us sufferers to be compensated financially for what we’ve been through. But more than anything, I want it banned. So many of us women have had our lives ruined because of this. It isn’t fair and I’m furious. We need to make sure things change so that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in telegraph by Radhika Sanghani

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