For more than a decade, Annette Power has had to take antibiotics at almost every mealtime.
‘I got through them like Smarties,’ says Annette. ‘I’ve had permanent infections for about 16 years — I’d finish one course of antibiotics on a Friday, the pain would come straight back and on the Monday I’d be given another course to start.’
She’s now been told she is resistant to all but one type of standard oral antibiotic. If that stops working she’ll need more powerful antibiotics intravenously. ‘And when the intravenous ones stop working, I’ll be at risk of blood poisoning and that will just kill me off,’ she says.
Like thousands of other women whose stories have been highlighted by Good Health, Annette has suffered as a result of surgery for post-childbirth incontinence, where a plastic mesh is inserted to support the bladder.
An estimated 100,000 women in the UK have had the procedure (sometimes for womb prolapse rather than incontinence) and while many have had no problems, others have experienced crippling side-effects as the mesh has disintegrated into razor-sharp slivers that can become embedded in soft tissue, causing agonising pain and chronic infections.
‘I want to have the mesh taken out but the disturbance of extracting it could set up a worse infection,’ says Annette, 56, a former occupational therapist from Stilton, Cambridgeshire.
Just before Christmas, Chrissy Brajcic, 42, a mother of two from Canada who’d been chronicling her struggle with multi-drug-resistant infection following pelvic mesh surgery, died from sepsis.
‘After going septic I’m now getting respect and being treated well by doctors,’ Chrissy wrote in one of her final Facebook posts. ‘All it took was dying to get better care and better pain management.’
Suzy Elneil, a gynaecologist in London who specialises in removing the disintegrated mesh, says around 15 per cent of her patients have some antibiotic resistance. ‘It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing the same problems here as led to the death of the lady in Canada,’ she warns.
Urological surgeon Mohammed Belal of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, has also seen mesh patients with multi-drug-resistant infections. ‘So far we have been able to treat the worst infections by removing the mesh,’ he says.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists acknowledged a risk of antibiotic resistance, but insists that used correctly, the mesh is effective.
‘There is a risk of infection, but this remains low and recurrent infections are rare,’ their patient safety spokesman Tim Hillard, told Good Health.
Last week, the Department of Health caved in to pressure from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Surgical Mesh Implants, and 5,400 injured women from pressure group Sling The Mesh, and agreed to a national audit of mesh patients.
While the results are due in April, a survey of more than 500 Sling The Mesh members last month suggested 10 per cent had developed resistance to up to five routinely used antibiotics. ‘For many of these women, the prospect of no effective antibiotic treatment is frankly terrifying,’ said Kath Sansom the pressure group’s founder.
Until 2002, Annette, a mother of two grown-up children, had been healthy. But like one in four 40-year-olds who’ve had children, she suffered from stress incontinence, leaking urine when she ran or jumped. After the operation to insert the mesh she developed the first of countless infections.
‘For years I was told the pain and infection had nothing to do with the mesh,’ says Annette who can now only walk a few hundred yards. Her husband John, 66, died three years ago, and she is now with a new partner, but has been unable to have sex for six years.
‘Last November I was told there were no more types of tablet antibiotic available to me, I am resistant to all of them. I either have to get through infections without them or go into hospital for intravenous treatment.’
The mesh is now banned in New Zealand and its use restricted in Australia, and today hundreds of Sling The Mesh protesters are expected at Westminster demanding an outright ban here, too.