Northern Ireland

Women left 'scarred' after vaginal mesh implants


A group of women in Northern Ireland have said they have been left physically and mentally scarred after having vaginal mesh implants.

One of them has been left in such pain she said she had considered taking her own life.

The women are now starting legal action for claims of medical negligence.

The mesh or tape implants are used by surgeons in an operation to treat organ prolapse and urinary incontinence, which can be common after childbirth.

The Department of Health said it is "recognised that women who have undergone these procedures may experience complications, as is the case with any surgical procedures, and these symptoms can be distressing".

"It is essential that clinicians that conduct these operations carry out audits to ensure they are performing to the highest possible standards."

The UK's medical products regulator said the current evidence was that the devices are "acceptably safe" if used "properly and as intended."

Image caption Mary Morris said she had been left in excruciating pain.

Mary Morris was 50 years old when she had the operation in 2013. Far from curing her incontinence, she said, it left her in excruciating pain.

"Whenever I was walking I could feel the mesh coming out of my inner thigh. It was like a saw cutting into me, hot and burning. My actual skin had ripped open and was bleeding. That was it eroding."

The mother of three has now had the implant partially removed but explained that she is still suffering.

"I just got that low at times that I didn't want to live. I am a very strong person but it has ruined my family life. I have a young son who is autistic and I could not look after him. I have to get my daughter to do everything for me. I am in severe pain - it's horrendous."

The mesh is made of polypropolene which is a type of plastic. It has been used for a long time in operations - surgeons routinely use it in hernia repair, for example.

Its use as a vaginal implant for the treatment of incontinence is common in Northern Ireland.

Figures seen by the BBC show that in four out of the five health trusts it was used in more than 4,300 such operations from 2006 to 2016.

Image caption The mesh is made of polypropolene, a type of plastic

The procedure uses the mesh as a type of sling or hammock to hold up the internal organs and prevent leakage of urine.

Incontinence after childbirth is a big problem.

Judging how many women are affected is difficult, however, a medical study carried out in 1998 showed that the condition was sufficiently severe to require sanitary protection in over 12% of women aged 35 to 74 in Northern Ireland.

Dr Robin Ashe is a retired consultant gynaecologist at the Antrim Area Hospital. He said that the vaginal mesh and tape operations are a "safe and effective procedure" - as long as they are done in the correct circumstances and by people who are trained in the use of the device.

"Urinary incontinence is very common and is very debilitating and people are living miserable lives. This is an operation which turns around a life. It is effective in over 80% of cases."

"But I do acknowledge that these very unfortunate patients have developed long term problems, or seemingly long term problems and that is distressing."

That some women experience painful and long-lasting complications after this procedure is a story that is replicated across the UK.

The local health trusts, the board and the Public Health Agency turned down BBC NI's offer to be interviewed on the issue.

Image caption Dr Robin Ashe says the vaginal mesh and tape operations are a "safe and effective procedure" as long as they are done properly

The Scottish government set up an independent review group looking at the safety of mesh implants in 2014 after women, several of whom were in wheelchairs, gave evidence to the Holyrood Petitions Committee.

An interim report was delivered in October 2015 and the final conclusions were published in March 2017. More than 20,000 women in Scotland have had the operation over the past 20 years.

Data obtained by BBC One's Victoria Derbyshire programme shows that between April 2007 and March 2015, more than 92,000 women had vaginal mesh and other types of tape implants. About one in 11 has experienced problems, the figures suggest.

Figures obtained by BBC News NI from the body that manages negligence and other claims against the NHS in England, reveal that in a group action of 31 cases which relate to the use of mesh without full consent four have been settled with damages paid of £327,798.

Six have received interim payments of £30,000 but have not yet settled.

In seven other cases of medical negligence, damages have been paid of £204,000 while 18 claims have been closed without the payment of damages and 21 claims remain open.

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