Thousands of American women fighting to get their voices heard and draw awareness to the life-changing complications of transvaginal mesh are not alone. The problems surrounding these controversial implants affect women on a global scale, and victims and their families are banding together to support one another and draw attention to the issue.
Transvaginal mesh is a synthetic net-like piece of plastic that is inserted through the vagina to treat pelvic organ prolapse, a condition in which organs sag or fall into the vagina because of weakened pelvic floor muscles. When a smaller piece of surgical mesh is used to treat stress urinary incontinence, it is called a bladder sling.
Instead of fixing the problems, a number of women face complications far worse than prolapse or incontinence: mesh eroding through the vaginal wall, nerve damage, severe pain, organ perforation, multiple surgeries and hospitalizations and failed marriages.
Despite calls to ban the device from watchdog groups like Public Citizen in the United States, government health agencies in many countries have not issued a ban.
In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration previously stated that complications from mesh devices were “rare.” In 2011, the agency changed its statement to say that complications are not rare. The FDA also said women who received transvaginal mesh implants were at greater risk and there was no evidence of clinical benefit to the procedure.
One of the ways women in the United States and the rest of the world choose to voice their concerns is by filing lawsuits.
In the United States, women filed more than 18,000 federal lawsuits and 4,000 state lawsuits. Women in Canada, Scotland, Britain, Australia and New Zealand wage their own battles against mesh companies that failed to warn them of serious side effects. Class-action suits are underway in Canada and Australia.
In addition, several mesh support groups in these countries use the power of social media and the Internet to warn other women, tell their own stories and find support.
Scottish Women Demand Government Action
In Scotland, women faced with mesh complications appealed to the government to take action.
One Scottish mesh recipient, Linda McLaughlin, told the Daily Record and Sunday Mail that the troubles with mesh are a “scandal.” The 57-year-old teaching assistant is one of hundreds of women who suffered because of mesh in Scotland. After 9 surgeries, she was left with severe nerve damage.
McLaughlin is one of 14 women that met with Scottish health secretary Alex Neil and deputy chief medical officer Frances Elliot in early May 2013. At the meeting, women demanded a special register to keep track of the potentially dangerous implants.
“Until now there appears to have been a conspiracy of silence where consultants have kept our suffering and problems to themselves. We were all told our cases were unique when that is clearly not the case. That is totally unacceptable,” McLaughlin told the newspaper.
Health secretary Neil is sensitive to the women’s plight.
In an interview with the same newspaper, he issued a statement to the victims: “We need to make sure we have answers so that no one else has to go through the horrible experience you have been through. But there is a real responsibility on manufacturers who made this material to work with the NHS in Scotland to get these problems solved and help these women who have been adversely affected.”
The Scottish government is now considering the creation of a national register that will include data from England.
Canadian Protesters Warn Others of Mesh Dangers
In Canada, women rallied in front of Saskatoon City Hospital in May 2013 to spread awareness of mesh dangers. In 2010, Health Canada warned hospitals and doctors about complications with mesh, but it came too late for many women.
In 2012, Canadian plaintiffs filed a class-action suit against mesh manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. According to Law 360, the suits filed were over medical problems such as nerve damage and fistulas–abnormal holes or passageways between organs.
In addition to the complications caused my mesh, Canadian women also have difficulty finding local doctors who will remove faulty implants. Some women at the May rally like Saskatchewan resident Marika English suffered immediate pain after mesh was implanted, and in a few weeks it cut through her bladder.
She told CBC News that the pain was “like a vice grip clamping onto [her] stomach with, like, razor blades on it.” The Canadian traveled to California and paid $30,000 to have the mesh removed.
Along with other women, English petitioned the Canadian government to pay for their treatment in the United States because doctors in Canada appear to not know how to remove the mesh or are unwilling to.
Canadian doctors and officials disagree.
Dustin Duncan, Saskatchewan’s minister of Health, told CBC News that there are at least nine Canadian surgeons who can do the mesh removal procedure. Urologist Jacques Corcos of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital told CTV News: “I think each province in Canada has sufficiently well-trained physicians to do this kind of work.”
However, some doctors in the United States like Atlanta surgeon Dr. John Miklos caution that mesh removal surgery is “not for the average surgeon” because of its complicated nature.
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Canadian Health Minister Theresa Oswald pushed the federal government to review transvaginal mesh.
Mesh Class Action May Be Largest in Australian History
At the end of 2012, a group of Australian women started a class-action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson over the company’s transvaginal mesh products.
One Australian attorney involved in the class action, Rebecca Jancauskas, estimates that 20,000 Australian women had mesh implanted. She told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “This prolapse mesh class action that we’ve commenced in the Federal Court today has the potential to be the biggest product class action that Australia has ever seen.”
Lead plaintiff Julie Davis had mesh implanted after a traumatic birth caused her to suffer from prolapsing organs, but the surgery left her unable to walk without pain, chronically fatigued and with severe depression.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration, Australia’s health agency, reviewed transvaginal mesh in 2010, but found that “compared to the number of women who had received a mesh insertion, the number of complications was low.”
The Australian class action has since called attention to the fact that manufacturers introduced mesh into the market without any pre-market testing.
The Internet has connected many of these women across borders, and it has become a global forum. For many women suffering mesh complications, educating others about the potential problems of this procedure has become a personal goal.
American nurse Linda Gross – who recently won an $11 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson – spoke out in support of mesh victims in Scotland. She told the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, “I’d like the women in Scotland and the rest of the UK to know I am behind their campaign all the way and will continue to offer my support.”