In a major win for campaigners against vaginal mesh implants, the government has launched a full retrospective audit of all women who have had the surgery since 2005.
It will be the first comprehensive study into the scale of complications and will provide a definitive look at the number of women affected by mesh implants.
This comes after a series of meetings with an All Party Parliamentary Group set up by Owen Smith MP which looked into the safety of mesh devices.
NHS England estimates over 100,000 women have had vaginal mesh surgery to treat urinary incontinence, most often caused by childbirth.
The official complication rate for vaginal mesh surgery is between 1-3% but recent studies have shown it to be anything between 10-15%.
The announcement of an audit comes a few months after Australia and New Zealand banned the use of its mesh products for some pelvic surgery.
Chair of the APPG on Surgical Mesh Implants, Owen Smith MP said: “Over the last two years I’ve been urging Ministers to conduct an investigation to fully determine problems related to mesh surgery.
“I’m delighted that the government has listened to my concerns and has now agreed to undertake this audit to get a better understanding of complications related to mesh surgery. I hope the audit will provide crucial answers about the proportion of women adversely affected.”
Dr Sohier Elneil is a specialist in mesh removal and sat on the board of the UK health watchdog NICE for ten years, advising on its use. She described the audit as a major step forward.
She said: “I’m absolutely over the moon about it because this is the one thing we were looking for – this was not about us pursuing anybody or pursuing any agency, it was about us getting to the truth and knowing what the problem was and how much of a problem it was.
“I think the complication rate is a minimum of 10%, I suspect it is much closer to 20-25% of all implants that have had a negative effect on women’s lives.
“After the results of the audit we also need to make plans, on how to rectify the situation and how to start helping women. Not just on a one-on-one scale but on a global scale and that may impact, and should impact, on what actual product is available and when it could or should be used.
“So we need to revise the whole issue of insertions of tapes, meshes or prosthetic materials – it depends on what everybody calls them. But it’s still the polypropylene product.”
Julie Gilsenan, a paramedic from Liverpool, had vaginal mesh surgery last year to treat her mild incontinence brought on after childbirth.
She decided to have her mesh removed after it caused her chronic pain and she was barely able to walk. It’s a highly dangerous procedure because mesh is designed to be permanent.
She said: “It absolutely ruined my life. I’m in a worse position now – I had mild stress incontinence and that’s why I had the TVT operation performed in February. And I’m now more incontinent than I was before I had the surgery. So I’m facing the prospect of further surgery to try and correct that.
“That’s just hideous to think that I’ve spent 12 months, being in pain and agony for 12 months, I had to take all kinds of painkillers, couldn’t do my job. And I’ve had two operations and I’m now in a worse position than I was before I had that initial surgery.
“Would you take that risk if someone said that to you? There’s absolutely no way. It’s playing with people’s lives and I just cannot believe that they still do this.”
The results of the audit are expected to be announced in April after data is collected and analysed on patients’ conditions and the type of surgery and subsequent hospital admissions.
The latest guidelines from the UK health regulator, the MHRA, is that vaginal mesh is an effective treatment for the majority of women and there’s no evidence to suggest the device is inherently unsafe.
The news comes ahead of the latest APPG meeting on Tuesday in Parliament, where MPs from all political parties will meet with clinicians to discuss mesh.