Women damaged by surgical mesh used to treat post-childbirth incontinence have reacted with fury to a Government report investigating the problem.
At least 7,800 women say they’ve suffered lacerations and nerve damage because the mesh has broken into tiny fragments.
The report, which is unpublished but has been seen by Good Health, is the result of a three-year investigation by NHS England. It confirms that many more women have complained of injuries than previously suggested and calls for a helpline to support victims.
But it did not look at the safety of the mesh and rejects calls for a ban. Instead, it says hospitals should ensure that surgeons be trained to implant it; at the moment any gynaecologist can perform the procedure.
The report stops short of demanding a register of all implant operations, which injured women had called for, but suggests women use the ‘yellow card’ reporting system, used by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), where patients and doctors can report reactions to treatments.
‘More independent rigour [needs to be] brought to discussions,’ says the report.
Campaigners are furious about the report’s tenor and findings.
‘All the doctors I’ve seen think this material should be banned,’ says Teresa Hughes, 66, who has been battling for recognition of the injuries she suffered after she had the mesh implanted in 2006.
‘We wanted a proper register of how many meshes were implanted, how many were removed and mandatory reporting of problems to get a scale of the problem.
‘This inquiry and the way we have been dealt with has been utterly disgraceful, and whitewash is the only word for this report.’
Teresa, a former auditor and mother of two from St Helens, Lancashire, has had surgery to retrieve the mesh shards that penetrated her bladder, urethra and surrounding tissues.
‘A lot of it is still there,’ she says. ‘I can hardly walk because of nerve damage. I have pains shooting down my legs. There are so many women like me, yet surgeons continue to use this stuff.’
Teresa is one of seven representatives from victims’ groups invited to give evidence to the NHS-led Mesh Oversight Group, which produced the new report. The year after the group was formed in July 2014, the representatives and a number of doctors involved stopped receiving invitations to meetings and received no further communication from the group.
The mesh, introduced 20 years ago, was promoted as a quick, cheap alternative to complex surgery for incontinence and which did not require specialist training to implant. More than 10,000 women a year have the mesh procedure. This week the MHRA insisted the mesh is safe, despite its use being recently suspended in Scotland, pending a ‘review of a review’ of the safety concerns.
Suzy Elneil, a urogynaecologist who specialises in removing mesh fragments, was invited to join the inquiry but was dropped from the committee 18 months ago.
‘I had no idea until now the meetings were even continuing,’ she told Good Health. ‘I think they [the NHS and the MHRA] think this is a problem that will go away.
‘They insist the complications are only 1 to 3 per cent, but that’s ignoring data showing complications averaging up to 40 per cent in some studies.’
Kath Sansom, of the campaign group Sling the Mesh, said she had questioned the complication rate cited by the Department of Health. ‘They ignored their own evidence showing 14 to 15 per cent of women couldn’t have sex after having this tape inserted.’
Meanwhile campaigners have raised questions about potential conflicts of interest affecting the Mesh Oversight Group.
A database of implants run via the British Society of Urogynaecology who have been involved in the inquiry, was funded by manufacturers and was reported to have recorded only 27 per cent of operations.
British Association of Urological Surgeons (BAUS) events also receive funding from manufacturers and Roland Morley, a former BAUS chairman who has been on the Mesh Oversight Group, has had research funded by mesh manufacturers.
‘I make every effort not to be influenced,’ he said. ‘I have never knowingly been influenced in the use of any surgical appliance.’
Campaigners believe fear of litigation means the NHS will be reluctant to take further action.
Catherine Lee, 43, a former university lecturer from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, is disabled following a mesh operation a year after the birth of her son Charlie, now nine. Last week she received £375,000 compensation from Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust, the first in the country to receive such a payout.
Suzy Elneil believes this will open the floodgates for more claims: ‘Even if the NHS delays the litigation by continuing to deny there’s a problem, the claims are still going to come in.’