One Year On, Women With Vaginal Mesh Are Still Being Ignored

Campaigners are calling for better support, saying nothing has changed since 2020's landmark review.

One year on from the damming report on vaginal mesh and “the only thing the government has achieved is a half-hearted apology from Matt Hancock”.

That’s according to the campaigners still fighting for better health outcomes for women who’ve had vaginal mesh surgery.

A vaginal mesh implant, sometimes referred to as a “sling implant”, is a controversial treatment previously given to women who experienced pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence, particularly after childbirth.

It was once common in the UK, with more than 92,000 women given a vaginal mesh implant between April 2007 and March 2015 in England alone. But the treatment was “paused” in 2018 amid concerns about the operations – and a review ordered.

HuffPost UK has been reporting on the scandal since 2017, interviewing women who’ve described life-changing complications, including being unable to walk, work, or have sex after surgery. Multiple women have described mesh as feeling “like razor blades”, while one woman told us “it ripped condoms”.

Vaginal mesh was previously a common treatment given to women experiencing incontinence after childbirth.
Stanislaw Pytel via Getty Images
Vaginal mesh was previously a common treatment given to women experiencing incontinence after childbirth.

The official review, overseen by Baroness Julia Cumberlege, confirmed everything these women and others have been saying for years.

“We met so many women with limited mobility having to rely on a wheelchair or crutches to move around, unable to sit for periods at a time, unable to play with their children or carry their grandchildren,” it said.

“The effects of these procedures have caused fractured relationships for some and placed some women and their families in dire financial straits. In short, the system does not know the true long-term complication rate for pelvic mesh procedures.”

The review set out nine major recommendations to bring much-needed help to those who have suffered, including the creation of “specialist centres,” so that women could have their mesh removed or receive further treatment. These centres opened in April, but women have reported difficulties accessing appointments, or travelling to clinics far away from their homes.

A year on, campaigners say not much has changed for victims of vaginal mesh, with some in the medical profession still pushing for the treatment to be reintroduced. On Thursday, politicians will meet to debate the issue again.

“Women deserve better than the government’s refusal to implement the Baroness Cumberlege recommendations,” says MP Emma Hardy, who is leading the debate alongside shadow health minister Alex Norris.

“The recommendations will not only make life better for those living with mesh complications, they will also improve patient safety for everyone in the future.”

The debate is calling for all Cumberlege recommendations to be implemented without further delay, including financial redress for women and sweeping reform of the healthcare and regulation framework.

It is also calling for a retrospective audit of mesh to work out the number of women suffering. The Cumberlege report suggests contacting all women who had mesh in the year 2010 to see how they are in 2021.

Joanne Lloyd, Beverley Burrows and Mandy Bridge are among the women HuffPost has previously interviewed about vaginal mesh.
HuffPost UK
Joanne Lloyd, Beverley Burrows and Mandy Bridge are among the women HuffPost has previously interviewed about vaginal mesh.

“Mesh for stress incontinence was suspended in 2018 and we believe it should not be brought back until the audit is carried out until we know the true scale of complications,” says Kath Sansom, founder of the campaign group Sling The Mesh, which has 9,000 members. “Scottish Government have pledged to never bring it back. Sadly, surgeons in England are pushing for it to be used again.”

Campaigners in Northern Ireland and Wales say the situation is also dire.

“Mesh services are next to non-existent. No formal announcement has been made since the new centres opened on 1 April,” says Susan McLarnon of Sling The Mesh Northern Ireland. “Patients who are being seen ’generically” are still being told mesh isn’t the issue. They are still in denial. Women have been left in limbo, suffering horrendous pain with nowhere to turn.”

Karen Preater, of Mesh Awareness Wales, says other than the Cumberlege report, there has been “no statements or correspondence” from the people in power.

“I have emailed several times asking about a Patient Safety Commissioner and have had no responses,” she says. “South Wales have their centre. North Wales are told to use Manchester. [There’s] total silence from the Welsh Government.”

HuffPost UK approached the Department of Health and Social Care for comment ahead of the debate. A spokesperson said: “Baroness Cumberlege’s report and recommendations are incredibly important for the women, children and their families who have gone unheard for too long. Earlier this year, we provided an update to Parliament on our response to the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review.

“The report took over two years to compile and we must give it the proper consideration it deserves before setting out our full response to ensure appropriate lessons are learned. We are already working to implement five of the report’s nine recommendations and we are carefully considering the remainder of the recommendations. The government plans to respond in full this year.”