Jane Akre, an award-winning journalist and national news editor, is the founder of Mesh Medical Device News Desk (MDND). MDND is a website that strives to “put a face on adverse events” by sharing the stories of people who suffered complications from dangerous medical devices MDND provides the latest news, perspectives and information from the medical industry.
Akre is an experienced news reporter with 30 years of experience as a broadcaster and anchor. She worked for several stations across the country, including CNN. She won the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Ethics and the Goldman Prize in 2001.
While working for Fox WTVT in Tampa in 1997, Akre and her husband, Steve Wilson, worked on a report about bovine growth hormone and Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology company that produced it. Monsanto objected to the report, and the report was aired with several edits after Akre and Wilson were terminated in 1998. Akre and Wilson said the version that eventually aired was slanted and false, and they filed a whistle-blower lawsuit. The story of their battle against Fox was featured in the 2003 documentary, The Corporation.
Akre first began her work with medical devices in 2009 after producing a four-part series on surgical mesh called Suffering in Silence. Akre continues to report on transvaginal mesh and other medical devices. She spoke to Drugwatch about journalism, the problems with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and surgical mesh.
Q&A with Jane Akre
Michelle Llamas: Do you think of yourself as an activist or an advocate for one thing or another?
Jane Akre: I try to dissuade people of the notion that I am an activist, because for one thing, you don’t get access as a journalist (if you’re an activist). Secondly, I’m just reporting. That’s what I’ve done all my life — be a reporter. I don’t think I’ve gone over the line yet.
The title of my website is “Putting a Face on Adverse Events,” so I do advocate putting a face on (the issues), and that’s it. If you are working in the public interest as a journalist, that’s what you are supposed to be doing anyway, and that’s fine. I’m comfortable with that.
I don’t think that makes me an advocate; it makes me a journalist. We see not so much of that these days. We sort of see people acting in the interest of their corporation, their media conglomerate.
ML: Do you consider what you are doing a public service?
JA: I really do. And if someone else was doing it on this particular topic, I wouldn’t be doing it.
ML: What led you to start Mesh Medical Device News Desk?
JA: I was working for Injury Board a few years ago, and some people who were with Truth in Medicine called me up and said, “Oh, this is a great story. You will be amazed by it.” Then they told me all these things about surgical mesh, and I went, “Hmmm, I doubt that’s true.” But I dutifully wrote it all down and started to look into it, and I went, “Oh my god. That is true.”
It started to really challenge what I thought about the FDA and how we regulate medical devices, which is really poorly. It kind of opened up my world. When I started talking to these women who had pain in their voices, and their lives had really been destroyed (by transvaginal mesh). I don’t see how many of them are going to get back to normal lives, and neither did they.
You know the old adage, “just follow the money trail” — that seems to be what will lead you to the truth here. And then I discovered that it was under-reported, and I always like to break a story or find a story that nobody else is reporting on. I’ve always been that way. When there was a big story that everybody jumped on, I try to do the sidebar or find something different about it.
ML: Many women are filing mesh lawsuits. Do you think it is one of the best ways to get their voices heard?
JA: Yeah, I don’t know what else they can do. They say follow the money trail, money talks, and when it starts to cost (the mesh companies) into the billions like Vioxx did–and I suspect it will–then they are going to make some changes.
Also, this is an important point: I am so impressed with the intelligence of the women who filed lawsuits. These women are doing research on these topics, reading and advocating. You are talking about a formidable army here. There are not, as some people have suggested, women who filed lawsuits because they saw an ad on television.
ML: With all the things you have learned about mesh … do you trust the FDA?
JA: I think there are good people who work in the FDA who are well meaning. But the FDA is funded by Congress, and Congress has its ear to lobbyists. This is the complaint about Washington; this is nothing new. So, if lobbyists have the purse strings, (the FDA) is underfunded for the job that it has to do to keep Americans safe.
But you know they aren’t going to get that money from Congress, when you see them sitting there in hearings saying, “My constituents want faster approval for medical devices.” Well, I am sorry, who are your constituents again? Are they injured people or are they the medical device manufacturers that you hope move into town so you can become a hub? It’s just so backward.
It is upsetting to see the love fest between the industry and the FDA.
ML: You mentioned FDA funding. A lot of it is used for policing products that might be coming from out of the country. That leaves the FDA to depend on the corporations to give them the information on whether their products are safe. Of course, if a company is trying to make money and get a drug approved, they might not be inclined to present everything.
JA: Almost every week we see a finding about someone withholding information. Are (the companies) trustworthy? Have they proven themselves to be acting in the best interest of the public? And the answer is no. It is almost like, “How much money can I make, and how fast can I make it?”
ML: What is your advice for women who are thinking about having mesh implanted?
JA: The general consensus from what I’m gathering is that only in very few instances should mesh be considered. And that’s probably when your tissues are just not going to hold anything (in place). And then there are always tissues from your own body that can be used. If I was in that situation, that is where I would go, and that is my personal opinion, which we are still allowed to have. I would seek out those surgeons.
ML: Some doctors say transvaginal mesh should remain on the market, while some women say it should be recalled. What is your opinion on that?
JA: I don’t hear any women screaming out for mesh. That is just my experience. They aren’t lining up.
They were sold a bill of goods that this is going to be easy, breezy. … (Now) they are saying it’s the worst decision they ever made in their life. They are saying, “I can’t get out of bed. I am in so much pain. I have to be on morphine.” I hear time and time again that these women are being turned away by doctors and that they should take antidepressants or that they can’t help them anymore. Really?
ML: For women who are suffering with these implants, do you have anything you would like to say to them?
JA: I think they should join a community of other women who are in a similar situation who have found some relief.
ML: Those online communities are a blessing.
JA: Yes, they are, and people say that. They say, “I didn’t know these existed. Thank God you’re here.” Sometimes, they call me at home. They call my cell phone, and I send them to a patient advocate. The advocates usually say there are very few people in the country who can get your mesh out or give you an honest assessment, and here is who they are.
ML: What do you think the future of mesh will be?
JA: I think in the immediate future, it will not be banned, but some other companies might follow Johnson & Johnson‘s lead and take their products of the market.
The whole family is impacted. It is not just the women, it is her family and her children. I have heard stories of women having their children taken away from them because they can no longer provide for them, and husbands who leave.
And what is this costing us as a nation? I mean, if 20 surgeries–and I have heard of women who had 20, 10 is not uncommon–what is this costing us? Are the insurance companies going to get involved? It’s just costing too much.
ML: What keeps you reporting on this?
JA: I don’t really have an answer for that. I love the research, and I love to write. Maybe when this is front-page news, I will do something else. For the meantime, I have to keep on telling these stories. Maybe there is a book at the end of the day, with all the things I have learned. Who knows?
ML: How did you get into journalism?
JA: I started at my university radio station. I grew up on Long Island, so they had some pretty good listener-sponsored radio, WBAI, and that’s where I started.
ML: So, you started in radio and moved to TV?
JA: Yeah, I moved to TV in Albuquerque — behind the scenes, and then got a job weekend anchor in Tucson, Arizona. I had a few more stops after that. I was at CNN for a while and moved to St. Louis and San Francisco, Miami and Tampa.
ML: You have done your share of reporting via the Internet. How do you think that has revolutionized the way news get passed around?
JA: In every way, 100,000 percent. And we are just in the very early changes. It’s amazing what’s going on. I have never seen anything like it. Everything is going online, and the news business is changing to adapt to that.
ML: What’s next for you?
JA: This is what I do, and I’m pretty much stuck with it. But it is tough being independent.
It was a blast to cover the Linda Gross trial on Facebook. It was great, and I can’t wait to do the next one.